Walk the hallways of the Pavilion where Villanova plays basketball, or the Davis Center where the team trains and practices, and it is always 1985. Ronald Reagan is the president. Something called WrestleMania is holding its first event. Nelson Mandela is in a South African prison. Pete Rose is closing in on Ty Cobb's major-league hit record.
It is 1985 and the Villanova Wildcats are the national champions of college basketball. The photos aren't grainy, but many of them are black-and-white. The shorts seem to be missing inseams. The coach is disheveled, jumping up and down with his jacket flying and his shirttail billowing. The players run and jump and shoot, forever frozen in magical moments that will never thaw. And, of course, there is the picture of all of them together, surrounding the coach, and holding the big trophy. It is 1985 and it will always be.
There have been other great teams, other great players, and other coaches since then. Jay Wright took the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2009 and there are plenty of pictures on the walls from his teams and from the teams of Steve Lappas, who bridged the coaching gap between Rollie Massimino and Wright. Just not as many.
At other schools, with different cultures, with different coaches, the incumbent might tire of the comparison. At Villanova, that's not done. On Tuesday night, the comparison came home and they had a party. Massimino, a week shy of his 80th birthday and coaching the NAIA Division II Northwood Seahawks, was back for an exhibition game and, not coincidentally, all those players climbed down from the photographs to join him.
"Having Coach back is a thrill for all of us," Wright said. "We still do everything basically the same way."
By that, Wright means they still preach family and tradition and The Villanova Way and all those things that make outsiders roll their eyes. Nothing else about the job has really stayed the same.
"Some coaches might say, 'I've heard enough about 1985,' but Jay uses it as a platform," said Whitey Rigsby, who played for Massimino and is now the school's director of development for athletics as well as the team's longtime radio color commentator. "He wasn't the guy who replaced the legend. He was the guy who replaced the guy who replaced the legend, which is always easier. But you can't run and hide from 1985. You have to embrace it. It's the only way to be a success. With Jay, that dude's not hiding from anything."
Massimino coached 19 seasons at Villanova before decamping for UNLV and then Cleveland State and then, after a three-year hiatus, for Northwood in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he is now in his ninth season. Lappas followed him at Villanova and lasted nine seasons, winning just two NCAA tournament games, before Wright, now in his 14th season, took over.
Three coaches in 42 years is pretty good and Villanova has usually been pretty good, but never as good, or as fortunate, or as touched by fate, as it was nearly 30 years ago.
"It's never been [a burden]," said Wright, who was hired by Massimino as an assistant in 1987 and went with him to UNLV before getting the head coaching job at Hofstra. "It was so magical and so special, that no one here looks at it like, 'That's easy to do. We should just do that again.' People look at it as such a defining moment of what's the best of Villanova. I'm lucky the fans and administration never puts that pressure on me."
For the current players, 1985 is as literally distant as a championship from the 1950s would have been to Wright when he was in college. They see the pictures and the trophy and the legend is drilled into them, but the pictures are still black-and-white, and the road between them and the next trophy might seem almost as long as the road back to the previous one.
"I just figured that out a few years ago," Wright said. "I went on a rant about five years ago, a rant to the team about the tradition of Villanova. It might have been Scottie Reynolds. 'Where were you in '85? Where were you?' And he looked at me and he said, 'I wasn't even born.' That's the first time it hit me. Everyone in our era, if you were in basketball, that was a big part of you. To these kids, it's not the same. But because the players still come around, it still resonates with them. They see the pictures everywhere, they see the players and how people react to them. It's still fresh. That's why it's so unique."
Massimino still walks the hallways, and so do Eddie Pinckney, Harold Pressley, Dwayne McClain, and the others. Tuesday night was a little different because they all did it in person one more time. That's how it felt. Just one more time and, as usual, forever.