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Nearly 80, Massimino keeps on coaching

Rollie Massimino will be back coaching at the Pavilion in a couple of weeks. Nine days after that - Nov. 13, to be precise - he will turn 80 years old.

Basketball coach Rollie Massimino. (John Costello/Staff file photo)
Basketball coach Rollie Massimino. (John Costello/Staff file photo)Read more

Rollie Massimino will be back coaching at the Pavilion in a couple of weeks. Nine days after that - Nov. 13, to be precise - he will turn 80 years old.

The man who coached Villanova for 19 years, and during that one marvelous, mystical April Fool's evening in 1985, has not slowed down and has no plans of retiring even as he continues a battle against cancer.

"I went to visit [former Florida State football coach] Bobby Bowden a few years ago and he was up on top of the tower coaching," Massimino said. "I yelled up to him, 'How much longer you going to do this Bobby?' He said, 'I won't stop until I fall off the tower.' I won't stop. It's fun as long as you have good kids. The kids haven't changed. They want to be disciplined, they want to win, and they want to have fun."

They get all of the above with Massimino, who only stepped down in the level of competition when he agreed to literally build the Northwood University basketball program from the ground up in 2005. The tiny private school is in West Palm Beach, Fla., and it has become a giant at the NAIA Division II level. Pasta dinners, cooked by Massimino's wife, Mary Jane, at the family home remain part of the deal for the players, too.

Most senior citizens go to South Florida to retire. Massimino went there at age 70 to coach seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. When he answered his cellphone Monday morning, he was getting ready to coach the individual portion of his practice. When the interview extended beyond 20 minutes, he was antsy to join his players.

It could be argued that Massimino has had more success at Northwood than he did at any of his previous coaching stops, including Villanova. The Seahawks are 227-48 in his eight seasons since he helped create the program.

"That first year we practiced at the Jewish community center and outdoors on the tennis courts," Massimino said. "We had six kids. The next year, we went to the national tournament."

His teams have been to the NAIA Division II tournament in each of his eight seasons and won six league titles. The Seahawks reached the national title game in 2012 before losing to Oregon Tech. During his tenure at Northwood, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had surgery in September 2011.

"I haven't beaten it," he said. "I still have it. I see the doctor every three months."

It's not slowing him down. Proof of that can be found in Northwood's ambitious exhibition schedule. The Seahawks open with a three-game tour against some of the top Division I teams in the country.

Sandwiched around the Nov. 4 game at Villanova, the Seahawks will play coach Fran McCaffery's team at Iowa and coach Gregg Marshall's team at Wichita State. Iowa is ranked 25th in the preseason USA Today coaches poll. Villanova is 12th and Wichita State is 11th.

There's no question which experience Massimino will treasure the most. His Villanova homecoming will also serve as a 30th-anniversary celebration of the 1984-85 championship, a memory that never fades. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

A few years ago, Massimino's Northwood team was invited to an Orlando Magic game by the team's owner, Rich DeVos. Patrick Ewing, the giant center on the big, bad Georgetown team that Villanova cut down with a perfectly played game in the '85 championship at Rupp Arena, was a Magic assistant coach at the time. Massimino asked Ewing if he'd speak to his players.

Among other things, Ewing left the Northwood kids with this message: "I'll tell you something, that man over there stole a championship ring from me."

He was, of course, pointing at Massimino, who said he receives annual visits in South Florida from the players on that Villanova championship team. He'll see all of them in two weeks before he goes against his former assistant Jay Wright in a friendly clash between two of the best-dressed coaches in college basketball.

"Obviously, 30 years has gone by in a flash," Massimino said. "Jay and I talk all the time, and when he called and asked if we'd like to play them up there and have all the guys back from that '85 group, I told him that would be wonderful."

It will be wonderful. When Massimino left Villanova to replace the legendary Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV after the 1991-92 season, the student body stood and applauded his departure. The Wildcats were coming off just their fourth losing season in 19 years under Massimino, but people inside and outside the university wondered about his principles and whether he had changed after winning the national title.

He was bounced quickly from UNLV after two years and spent seven nondescript seasons at Cleveland State before being asked to construct a basketball program that would never bring him the kind of attention or accolades he received at Villanova.

Turns out Rollie Massimino did not need the attention and accolades so many thought he craved. He needed to be a basketball coach and, on the verge of turning 80 years young, he remains one of the best in the country.