Rollie Massimino died before he could be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was selected as a finalist in 2017 but fell short of induction. His coaching career is certainly worthy of inclusion.
Reasonable minds can differ over whether an accomplished coach should be admitted to the Hall. If you examine Massimino's rich life in the game, few can match the years the former Villanova coach devoted to basketball and all he endured to stay on the floor until the end of his days. Rollie Massimino was truly a basketball lifer, and he coached the game until his dying days.
Massimino was a larger-than-life figure, a true character when the game was full of characters. Like most coaches of his generation, Coach Mass started with a high school team and then took over at Stony Brook before sitting beside Chuck Daly as an assistant at Penn. In the early 1970s, Massimino became the head coach at Villanova. He was a stalwart of the newly formed Big East, along with John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Bill Raftery and Jim Boeheim. Fiery and funny, Coach Mass built Villanova into a battling contender, reaching 11 NCAA tournaments, and he engineered one of the most iconic and shocking upsets in basketball history with the Wildcats' win over mighty Georgetown at Kentucky's Rupp Arena in 1985.
The 1985 NCAA championship was the high-water mark for Massimino, who unceremoniously left Villanova to replace Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV in 1992. After only two seasons, Coach Mass left the Runnin' Rebels in controversial fashion. He took over at Cleveland State a few years later. After seven forgettable seasons in Cleveland, his coaching career seemed to be at its end after he'd posted more than 500 Division I wins.
As it turned out, Massimino's coaching career was far from over. He simply couldn't give up the game.
After moving to Florida, where he could pal around and play golf with lifelong friends Daly, Raftery and Billy Cunningham, Massimino didn't settle easily into the retired coach's life. Instead, he took the head-coaching job at Northwood University (now known as Keiser University), an NAIA school in West Palm Beach, Florida, that was just starting a basketball program. When Massimino took the job, Keiser didn't even have a gym, only a few outdoor courts. Off the beaten path, Massimino has coached the past eight years at Keiser, and he has done so through bouts with cancer that were far more taxing than Massimino let on. His friends would attend Northwood games to support him, but they still busted his chops by occasionally calling his last coaching stop "Deadwood."
Nobody loved basketball more than Massimino. Octogenarians do not coach in near obscurity unless they love it, unless it is in their blood. For Massimino, it was in his marrow. Coach Mass put forth an impressive coaching résumé in his younger years. But what inspired awe among his peers and pupils was his tenacity and grit in coaching through illness and age at a tiny, unknown NAIA school, winning 298 games over eight seasons.
His Nova players and former staffers were loyal to Villanova, but they have been far more loyal to Coach Mass. In his last days, he was surrounded by family and friends, and former players made the trip to see him before he passed, including Harold Pressley and Chuck Everson. For years after Massimino left Villanova, he would often gather his former players for meals and get-togethers. He loved them, but they loved him even more. Whenever his protégés -- whether Jay Wright, Steve Lappas or Mark Plansky -- discuss Coach Mass, it is with a genuine laugh and a smile.
They don't make 'em like Rollie Massimino anymore. And it was wonderful to see him celebrated in his final years in the game. Massimino was the acclaimed coach emeritus at the 2016 Final Four when Villanova and Wright won the national championship. Last season Massimino notched his 800th victory as a head coach and was named a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame. This week he died as he lived, as a head coach, a basketball lifer.