Rollie Massimino on Villanova’s 1985 Upset Over Georgetown

Villanova’s former head coach — now 80 years old and heading up the hoops team at tiny Northwood University in Florida — looks back on one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

Photo by Jason Myers

Photo by Jason Myers

This is the 30th anniversary of Villanova’s historic upset over Georgetown in the NCAA Finals. How are you going to celebrate?
Our players have come down to visit me for the last eight or nine years, since we started the program here in Northwood. Everyone but a couple will be here. We celebrated at Villanova when we played them back in November, and we have our annual outing, because my wife is such a good cook that they’d never want to give that up.

That game helped launch the NCAA tournament to a higher level. When you see what March Madness has become, do you take any credit for it?
No, I don’t think I can take any credit for March Madness. I think it’s a great tournament, one of the most competitive situations in all of sport. Mike Eruzione, the Olympic hockey player, and I often argue what was the bigger game — him playing the Russians or us playing Georgetown. We’ve made some major arguments. In fact, we had to have Mike Fratello and Tommy Lasorda make the decision. Of course, they were my friends, so they voted for me.

A few years after the championship, you left Villanova to become the coach at UNLV — but you only stayed for a couple of years. Did you ever regret leaving Philadelphia?
Well, sometimes you make good decisions and sometimes you make not-so-good decisions. It was another opportunity; it was going to be a change of pace for me and my family. It was just one of those decisions that I made hastily.

You started the program there at Northwood, which plays in the NAIA. It can’t be quite as glamorous as the old Big East.
Oh no, no. But it’s very glamorous because we get wonderful kids. We’re very, very successful, and starting programs from scratch creates a legacy, and I think we’ll remember it forever.

In fact, you’re on a bus to Georgia right now for a game, right?
Yeah, a nine-hour bus ride, and we could have taken an hour plane ride.

That’s okay on your back and your joints and all that?

All of your players now were born years after the championship you won at Villanova. How much do they know about it?
My players know an awful lot, because we played Villanova three times.

You’ve told them the stories, then?
Oh yeah. I’ve told them all kinds of stories. They love it. And we [Northwood] have the longest streak being in the top 25 in the nation. It’s the longest ever; it’s about 83 weeks. Since 2008.

Wow, congratulations. Why do you keep coaching? You could probably take it easy, maybe get a TV job as a game analyst and stay close to basketball that way instead of working as hard as you do.
To me, it’s really not work. I’m battling some illness, but that’s okay when you get to be my age — you get some different kinds of things come up, and you just try to overcome them. It’s like how we overcome adversity when we’re on the floor. I think I teach the kids something about life on a daily basis.

Villanova, under Jay Wright, has become a consistent powerhouse again. How often do you talk to him?
He’s done a marvelous job. I talk to him at least two or three times a week. We’re very close, and he really is a great fit for Villanova University, and they’ll win the national championship one of these years.

Originally published as “We Want Answers: Rollie Massimino” in the March 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.