Recovering from a collapsed lung, under treatment for small recurrences of the cancer that was surgically removed four years ago, and on medication, Rollie Massimino was under strict doctor’s orders to take it easy for 48 hours and especially to avoid driving his car.
Nothing, apparently, was said about a golf cart.
On a bright, warm Florida afternoon recently, here was Massimino, behind the wheel, providing a tour of the Keiser University campus, tooling down a grass embankment and heading directly toward — heads up! — a pond before deftly steering around a tree and coming to a halt.
“Look at that,” he said, pointing to a large family of iguanas scampering toward the water. “I didn’t realize there were that many.”
A decade ago, Massimino settled in a residential golf community nearby. The plan was for him to watch the wildlife, whack the little white balls, smell the roses. The supposed good life — or retirement from decades of college basketball coaching — lasted less than two years.
“He tried it and kept saying, ‘I need something more to do,’” Massimino’s wife, Mary Jane, said. “He’s not one to sit around and read a book for more than 15 minutes.”
Even under doctor’s orders, and days away from his 81st birthday.
“Did he tell you that he wasn’t even supposed to go to work for the 48 hours?” Mary Jane said.
For 58 years, she has indulged Roland Vincent Massimino’s addiction to the stormy coach’s life, including the last decade at what was known as Northwood University until the college, with about 600 students and a 100-acre campus, became part of the Florida-based Keiser group this year.
Doctor’s orders discarded, Massimino was in his office bright and early, formulating the day’s practice plan, beginning with what he calls “the thought of the day.” It is a decades-old routine, one that has been repeated from the peak of Villanova’s iconic upset of Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA title game to the depths of a losing Cleveland State program, from which he was fired in 2003.
This day’s thought: “Isn’t it amazing what one can accomplish if no one takes credit?”
Credit where it is due: Massimino started the Northwood program in 2005 with six recruits, two outdoor courts and no actual games. The next season, playing in a new gymnasium, his first team went 23-9 and made the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division II national tournament. His tenure has produced a 246-60 record with runs to the national semifinals and finals.
The genesis of this coaching life renewed was a telephone call, a voice from Massimino’s distant past. Rick Smoliak, whom he knew from his first college head coaching job at Stony Brook, was Northwood’s athletic director.
“He said they wanted to start a basketball program and asked if I could come down and help,” Massimino said.
Mary Jane’s version: “He was going down to be a consultant. The next thing I knew, he was coaching.”
The next thing Jay Wright knew, his Villanova program was committed to a regular-season road game against a tiny university that “we didn’t even know the location of.”
Early in his career, Wright served as an assistant at Villanova for five years and is one of the roughly two dozen members of the Massimino coaching tree. In 2005, he was in New York on a recruiting trip with Ed Pinckney — star of the 1985 title team and one of Wright’s assistants at the time — when Mike Sheridan, their director of media relations, asked if they had signed a player from Florida because they were getting numerous calls from the state.
Massimino, in promoting the new Northwood program, had unilaterally announced that Villanova would help christen the new 1,600-seat gymnasium, its court eventually named for Massimino. What could Wright do but agree to a 2006-7 season opener?
“We get there, and the place is jammed because we’ve got a lot of Villanova alumni in the area,” Wright said in a telephone interview. “So they’re Villanova fans but also Rollie fans. And then, sitting at courtside, he’s got all his buddies from down there lined up.”
Chuck Daly. John Havlicek. Billy Cunningham. Bob Cousy. On occasion, hockey’s Bobby Orr would stop by. Football’s Bob Griese. Ken Sullivan, Massimino’s director of basketball operations, was startled one day by cast members of “The Sopranos.”
“Here’s this little school, and you never know who’s walking through the door,” Sullivan said.
Villanova handily won the inaugural game, but that wasn’t the last Wright and the Wildcats would see of Massimino, who has habitually scheduled preseason games against old friends to enhance his team’s profile, treating his players — and himself — to a Division I night out.
Consider a call he made to Kentucky’s John Calipari after his Northwood team fell a victory short of an NAIA Division II championship in 2012, a year after emergency surgery to remove a tumor in his lung, followed by rounds of chemotherapy.
Explaining to Kentucky reporters before the game why he had scheduled Northwood, Calipari said Massimino had told him he was struggling with his health, it was going to be his last year and he wanted to coach once more at Rupp Arena, where Villanova had shocked its Big East rival Georgetown — and everyone else — on April 1, 1985.
No fooling, Massimino recalled; he was “really thinking” of quitting at the time. Then his team played a close half at Michigan State, had a few decent moments against Kentucky, the defending national champion, and won at least 30 games for the third straight season.
What the heck. Too old to take up golf again, he might as well coach.
“If I get really sick, of course I’ll have to stop,” he said in his office, surrounded by a career montage of photos and trophies. “But I feel all right, pretty good. Supposedly I have shortness of breath. I had that collapsed lung because they were trying to find the nodes from where they located a couple of spots again around the lung.”
None of it stopped him from working this season’s exhibitions in late October. How could he miss the game against Dartmouth, coached by Paul Cormier, who played high school ball for him in Lexington, Massachusetts, and was his assistant at Villanova?
When his doctor ruled out flying with a collapsed lung, Massimino instructed the team to go ahead without him and nominated Conor Donelon, an assistant coach, to accompany him on a 30-hour train ride to Boston.
Along the way, Massimino called Chuck Everson, a 7-foot center from his close-knit 1985 champions, whom he appointed the team’s social director years ago, charged with keeping everyone in touch. Everson had planned to attend the games at Dartmouth and Vermont with a former Villanova teammate, Brian Harrington.
When Everson told Massimino that Harrington had another engagement, Massimino told him not to bother, that six hours was too long a drive to make alone.
“Meanwhile, he’s on a train for 30 hours,” Everson said. “I asked him what happened. He said, ‘Oh, I had a little thing, I’m fine,’ and hung up.”
Massimino has five children, and while they occasionally wonder how much is enough, others in his inner circle have all but given up.
“I thought he was foolish taking the train all the way up there, but I wasn’t surprised,” Mary Jane said. “He takes his job seriously. It’s what he loves, what keeps him active and young.”
Wright said: “I’ve come full circle on this. When he took the job, we all thought he was crazy, would do it a couple of years. Now what I realize is that he’s exactly what he always demanded of us, a fighter to the end. It’s just pure awe.”
More than worry, his basketball friends express fury at Massimino’s exclusion from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. How is it, they ask, that his Big East peers — John Thompson, Jim Boeheim and Lou Carnesecca — have been inducted while Massimino has not? In addition to overseeing one of the great upsets in the history of team sports, he had nine seasons with 20-plus victories at Villanova, 11 NCAA tournament appearances — when berths were harder to come by — along with this last decade of NAIA excellence, into his 80s.
“Our guys talk about it all the time when we’re together: ‘How this can be?’ ” Everson said.
Could it be the residue of Massimino’s two-season tenure at Nevada-Las Vegas, ending with the revelation of a contract agreement that circumvented state guidelines? Everson pointed out that Jerry Tarkanian, Massimino’s predecessor and a member of the Hall of Fame, was no stickler for rules.
Could it be the Cleveland State years, which were blemished by player disobedience and institutional dysfunction? Everson cited a 2015 inductee, Calipari, who has left two programs embroiled in controversy.
The snub draws a shrug from Massimino. There are worse things in life, he said, like not coaching at all, or death. In 2009, he eulogized Daly, from whose coaching tree he fell, as an assistant at Pennsylvania.
“I’ve been lucky in life, with coaching and family,” Massimino said.
The lines by this point have blurred. In his bonus work years, he has coached the sons of two players from the Villanova champions, Pinckney and Dwayne McClain. A group from the team visits for a weekend every February, dining on Mary Jane’s pasta and sleeping over on spare beds and air mattresses. Last November, they all gathered at Villanova, when Massimino brought his team for a game to mark the coming 30th anniversary of the title, along with his 80th birthday.
“They all see I’m still the same, yell and scream, run and jump,” he said over lunch at a sandwich shop before trudging off to practice, the office he loves most.
How much? Donelon, his assistant, recalled the postsurgery days when a friend watched Massimino work himself into a typical state of coaching frenzy and repeatedly pleaded with him to calm down. Finally, Massimino snapped: “Leave me alone already. If I die, I’m where I want to be.”
Everybody worries, players included. “Coach Conor tries to get him to sit, but he doesn’t want to,” said Deion McClenton, a 6-foot-10 center who, at 23, enrolled at Keiser after serving in the Army. “It’s amazing the energy he has for a man his age. He gives us energy.”
For practice, a black leather armchair is rolled out to the sideline. Occasionally, Massimino will retreat to sit for a few seconds. Then he is back up, on the court, in the field of play, with an assistant shadowing him, hand on his shoulder or arm around his waist.
“He’s been bowled over a few times,” Sullivan, the director of basketball operations, said. “One time I thought he wasn’t getting up.”
After retiring from a food distribution business on Long Island, where he also coached basketball, Sullivan moved to Florida more than a decade ago. He relaxed, played golf and “went a little crazy.”
He connected with Massimino when the program began and can understand better than most just what drives him.
“People need something to do,” he said, sitting along the sideline in a folding chair, legs crossed, as Massimino, shuffling around the court on pole-thin but still-sturdy legs, barked instructions in a voice that sounded like no octogenarian’s.
Sullivan pointed an index finger skyward. He said, “There’s only one entity that will decide when it’s time for him to go.”