Nov. 9, 2006
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) -Rollie Massimino pulls the ringing cell phone from his pocket, looks to see who's calling and flips it open.
Someone from Villanova is on the other end.
"All your tickets are almost gone, right? They told me you've got like eight left," Massimino tells the caller. "No, take 'em. If you need any more, let me know. We'll find a way."
Massimino hangs up, then rubs his head.
"I didn't think this game would be that big a deal," he said.
Clearly, he's not serious.
He's coaching at Northwood University now, a tiny NAIA-affiliated school of 1,000 students in West Palm Beach that started a basketball program this year and plays its first-ever home game Saturday night. It's against Villanova, where Massimino spent two decades and led to the 1985 NCAA championship.
"I still won't root against them," Massimino said. "It's very special. For Villanova and Jay Wright to give us the opportunity, to come down here especially since the game for him is a countable game, it's very, very special. That's what family's all about. That's what we've believed in all these years."
When Massimino, who turns 72 next week, decided to return to coaching, many of his friends - including golf buddies Chuck Daly, Billy Cunningham and Bill Raftery - told him he was crazy, he said.
But they'll all be there Saturday, along with as many people Northwood can squeeze into its 1,600-seat arena. And while the night will be fun and nostalgic for Massimino, it won't necessarily be easy for he and Wright to coach against one another.
"I'm not excited about it at all," said Wright, a former Massimino assistant. "I hate those games. I don't want to beat them. It's their opener, and I certainly don't want to lose. But it's great that we could do that and be a part of his first game back. He's done so much for everybody in our university and on our staff."
Massimino was at Villanova from 1972 through 1992, before moving on to Nevada-Las Vegas for a short stint. Then, after a break, he took over at Cleveland State, staying there until 2003.
When he was done there, he tried retirement. He played 54 holes of golf some days, getting his basketball fix by visiting former assistants who became head coaches around the country.
And one day, someone left a message for him at Jupiter Hills Golf Club, Massimino's course of choice.
"We knew we were starting a basketball program and I thought maybe he'd know somebody who would want to coach," said Northwood athletic director Rick Smoliak, who was friends with Massimino 35 years earlier when both coached at Stony Brook in New York. "He immediately got back to me and it went from there."
Smoliak said Massimino was intrigued by the notion of starting a program from scratch. After a few talks, the golf clubs got put away and the coach started working 12-hour days again, seven days a week.
Massimino is part coach, part CEO of the program. He oversees everything, from tickets to travel to equipment to recruiting, all with a limited budget to draw from and no secretary at his disposal.
"Rollie gives 100 percent to everything he does," said close friend Mitch Buonaguro, now an assistant at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. "He's had to do everything there. Get the players, get the arena done, do a schedule, get it going, put a team together. And this thing Saturday, it's going to be a big event."
Northwood's first three games are all against Division I schools. The Seahawks, who are in the exploratory phases of joining the NCAA Division II level, lost to Florida and Miami and will need a herculean effort to stay close with Villanova.
"This whole thing is surreal," said Northwood forward Cory McJimson, who transferred from Maryland-Baltimore County and was the first player to sign with the Seahawks in May 2005. "I never expected it to be like this. There's a lot of good vibes running around."
Massimino doesn't know how long this return to coaching will last. He has five assistants, only two of whom get paid. The rest are volunteer, yet still log long hours in the basketball offices.
Once the hubbub of Saturday goes away, he will likely have a competitive team in the Florida Sun Conference. And his name still draws great respect; Northwood, without ever having played a game, was picked to finish second in that league's preseason poll.
"I really missed the kids. That was the big thing," Massimino said. "Whatever happens, it's going to be exciting."
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this story.