When news broke that Rollie Massimino died, the basketball world was understandably heartbroken. The passing of the famed head coach who led Villanova to the NCAA title in 1985 came on the heels of the death of another coaching legend, Michigan State’s Jud Heathcote.
To be sure the Wildcat faithful and the fans at Keiser University, the NAIA school where Massimino spent his final years coaching, have naturally paid their respects. And so, too, have those who remember Massimino’s tenure at Cleveland State, where he was head coach from 1996 to 2003.
And rather than dwell on his final two seasons with the Vikings, which ultimately led to him stepping down, I’d much rather hearken back to 1996, when Massimino was hired to take over a Cleveland State squad that had languished under the final season of Mike Boyd, both in the win-loss column and in the stands.
Here’s a snippet of what I had written that May after he hosted a Select-Your-Seat night at the Wolstein Center (then the Convocation Center):
The Cleveland State basketball team hasn’t played a single game yet under new head coach Rollie Massimino. and yet, they have finally stepped into the big time.
It made no sense to me at first how one small head coaching change could vault the Vikings’ sad hoops team into national recognition. But in one fell swoop, it has.
The name and the energy of Massimino has brought CSU to the limelight. Why? Because Massimino has something that no coach in a 250-mile radius, including Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins has, a Division I basketball championship ring.
Now, to the uninterested person on the street, that wouldn’t even get a dull roar. But for the basketball-hungry fans of CSU, or basketball fans in general, it means everything.
While the Massimino’s debut campaign in 1996-97 showed a modest improvement in terms of wins and losses for the Vikings, he did, however, provide enough starpower to get the likes of Georgetown and Michigan to come to Cleveland. And CSU also notched a surprised win against Detroit Mercy in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament that years as well.
Even long after his departure from Cleveland State, Massimino’s influence could be felt at all levels of the basketball coaching ranks. In fact, at least four the players on that 1996-97 squad, Derrick Ziegler, Dean Rahas and Malcolm Sims, all currently coach at the high school level.
Of course, there’s the well-heralded Massimino coaching tree in college, that includes, among others, Villanova’s Jay Wright and recently-hired Youngstown State head coach (and former CSU manager and player) Jerrod Calhoun.
And that influence will be more of Massimino’s legacy than anything else. Despite the 90-113 record at Cleveland State, there was never any shortage of that contagious enthusiasm he brought on the sidelines for every game. And what seems like a bygone era in which high-major schools shied away from traveling to mid-majors, Massimino delivered, from his first year bringing in the Hoyas and Wolverines and all throughout his tenure, hosting, among others, Cal and Florida State.
When I first heard about Massimino’s death, I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to write this column that would inevitably going to happen. As it’s been well-chronicled, my role in the latter years of the Massimino era at Cleveland State was that of an enemy combatant, to be honest.
But, like all things, the passage of time makes us all think of the good more than the not-so-good. And that’s truly why when I sit back and remember Massimino, I think back more than anything to the man who openly embraced the college kid trying to make his way as a sports writer.
Good-bye, Coach Mass. I, like so many others, will miss you.
Email Bob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.
Image via CSUVikings.com