Before ‘The Perfect Game,’ Rollie Massimino was a basketball force in Massachusetts

The former Villanova coach died Wednesday at the age of 82.

FILE - In this March 24, 1985 file photo, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino takes a victory ride on his players shoulders. Rollie Massimino, who led Villanova's storied run to the 1985 NCAA championship and won more than 800 games in his career, died Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017 after a long battle with cancer. He was 82. (AP Photo/File)
Villanova coach Rollie Massimino takes a victory ride on his players shoulders after the team's famous 1985 upset over Georgetown. Massimino died Wednesday at the age of 82 after a long battle with cancer. –AP / File

Rollie Massimino won two championships during his storied basketball coaching career.

One is a bit more well-known than the other.

In 1985, Massimino took his eighth-seeded Villanova team on a Cinderella run through the NCAA men’s Division-I basketball tournament to the national championship against a powerhouse Georgetown team, led by All-American center Patrick Ewing. And yet, Massimino’s team — by all accounts, out-talented by the Hoyas — shot a Final Four-record 78 percent from the field in a shocking two-point upset that became known as “The Perfect Game.”

However, Massimino’s first coaching title came 20 years earlier, in the suburbs of Boston.

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Before his nearly 50-year college coaching career, the spirited, young future Hall of Famer, who died Wednesday at the age of 82, spent six seasons stalking the sidelines at Lexington High School. With the Minutemen, Massimino “led one squad to a state championship and another to a 20-1 record,” according to his biography.

(Ironically, the famous 1985 championship game took place in Lexington, Kentucky, which is named after the Massachusetts town.)

Massimino took the job in Lexington — a Revolution battle site-turned-wealthy Boston suburb — in 1963 at the age of 28. According to a Boston Globe report, Massimino, a 5-foot-8 former player at the University of Vermont, was recommended to the high school by the then-head coach at Dartmouth.

Basketball back then looked a lot different than it does now.

But the energy for which Massimino’s college career, which continued all the way through last season, became known was already on display.

“He’d get excited, that’s for sure,” Frank Sullivan, one of Massimino’s former Lexington players, told the Globe in 1985.

“He’d have those little physical tirades you see on the sidelines,” said Sullivan, who himself had a long coaching career at Bentley and Harvard. “He’d climb on the lockers. He’d take his belt off. He’d kick a ball the length of the court.”

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Sullivan recalled to the Globe one time in which Massimino got so angry his mouth plate flew out his mouth.

“He was so mad, he didn’t even stop talking,” Sullivan said. “He bent over picked up the plate and threw it against the wall. We just stood there. I was in 10th grade. I don’t think I’d ever seen false teeth before. Now they were flying against the wall.”

During his time at Lexington, Massimino became known for his understanding of the game and his players as much as for his passion. As the Globe‘s Leigh Montville recalled after Villanova’s 1985 championship, Massimino was an “evangelist for basketball.”

Not only did he jump into the high school program, he jumped into the program of the entire town. He coached the coaches, from grammar school upwards. He established one system for all of Lexington basketball. Trap defense. Patient offense. He established the same system the nation saw on Monday night.

“He always had a very good reputation as a basketball mind,” present athletic director Ralph Lord said. “Well respected. You’d go to his house and Bobby Knight would be sitting there, talking basketball with him. Bobby Knight. With a high school coach.”

“He always could understand kids,” Frank Sullivan said. “He knew the way they thought, what they had to hear. He was very good that way. He was the first Voice of the Coach I’d ever heard. I see a lot of coaches who really don’t understand kids. He did. A lot of coaches pay lip service to the idea of ‘family’ on a team. He believed it. He made it work. The same as he’s done at Villanova.”

In addition to the team success at Lexington, one of Massimino’s players, Ron Lee, went on to a six-year NBA career.

“My wife loved Lexington, my kids loved Lexington, I loved Lexington,” Massimino told the Globe in 1978.

“It’s the perfect place to live,” he said. “Everything was perfect, but…”

Even his players could reportedly sense at the time he had higher sights, though it’s hard to imagine even Massimino anticipated that his career would span six decades, five college head coaching positions, and one memorable national championship.

“I’d always wanted to give it a shot,” he said, though he explained his wife and five kids had kept him grounded in the Bay State.

Finally, at the age of 34, he took his shot — leaving Lexington to launch his college career at Stony Brook University on Long Island. It was reportedly a $5,000 pay cut.

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