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Longtime Villanova men's basketball coach Rollie Massimino was an inspirational figure to many, including Penn's own men's basketball coach Steve Donahue

Photo by Dealphungo / CC 3.0

He was a legend. 

Longtime coach of Villanova men’s basketball Rollie Massimino passed away this week after a long battle with lung cancer. Massimino, best known for taking a No. 8 seed Villanova team to the 1985 NCAA Championship and beating Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas, won over 800 games in his career. 

And while the 82-year-old spent much of his career at Villanova, he was no stranger to Penn. The season before he took the helm with the Wildcats, Massimino was actually an assistant coach for the Quakers. 

Likewise, the Palestra was Massimino’s home. Back in the 1980s, during his heyday, Villanova played its home games in the Cathedral of Basketball on 33rd Street. The rowdy, raucous coach attracted crowds from all over Philadelphia to see him — including current Penn men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue.

“I remember coming here as a kid to watch Patrick Ewing versus Ed Pinckney at the Palestra,” Donahue said. “Coach Massimino was probably the show of them all. I think he was the first coach that everyone started focusing on, just his sideline antics, showing his passion all the time out there.

“I thought the world of him,” Donahue continued. “Even though I didn’t know him very well [at the time], he was an inspiration to all young coaches growing up. The way he coached, the family atmosphere that he inspired me to be a coach.”

By the time Donahue had risen up the ranks to an assistant coaching position, Massimino was still dominating the Big 5 with Villanova. Donahue even got the chance to coach against him for Penn between 1990 and 1992. The two teams split their two meetings in that time. Massimino then left Villanova to coach at UNLV.

But Donahue and Massimino met one last time — just last year, in April 2016. “Coach Mass,” as Donahue and many others called him, was honored at the 13th annual Coaches vs. Cancer Basket Ball event, a fundraiser gala for cancer research. An exhibition game featured Donahue and Massimino, and Penn’s coach fondly looked back on one memory from the event. 

“Jackson Donahue hit like five threes in the first half. And he was throwing the ball inbounds next to coach Mass — Jackson told me this story, since I couldn’t see it — but he kind of punched Jackson in the arm, and said, ‘Hey! Hey!! What the hell are you doing??’ Jackson was stunned by coach Mass, but that’s just who he was.”

Donahue’s Quakers won the exhibition match — at least in part thanks to Jackson Donahue’s three-pointers. But that didn’t keep coach Donahue from praising Massimino’s coaching qualities.

“It was great to see Rollie back at the Palestra. To be honest, he was the same old Rollie — very fiery, into the game, all the things I saw growing up watching him coach, which was incredible. It just shows you his love and passion for the game.

“When I got to know him later on a personal basis,” Donahue continued, “I got to see that’s who he is. He basically loves basketball, he’ll tell you where he stands, he doesn’t hold back, and he did that up until he was coaching last year, when we were fortunate enough to coach [against] him.” 

He loved basketball. That was one of Massimino’s last exclamations, one he was heard shouting to old Big 5 coaches at the exhibition game last year: “I love these guys!”