Coaching on Fumes

Rollie Massimino doesn't appear to have much left.

Six Degrees of Separation Kennedy's Down Under, Playhouse Square Center, 1519 Euclid Avenue Through March 8, 216-241-6000.

The final horn sounds and the post-game handshakes begin. Rollie Massimino leads his team through the grip-and-grimace ritual with the coaches and players of Youngstown State. His face, gray as his suit, sags under weight of a weary frown. If he's not ill, he looks like he should be.

Minutes later, the Cleveland State coach shuffles into the Convocation Center's press bunker, hair awry and shirt rumpled. He slumps against a lectern, recounting the game in the monotone of a professor bored by a lecture he's given too many times. Only when a reporter -- one of just four in the cinder-block room -- asks if he realizes he coached his 900th game tonight does Massimino's head jerk up.

"It's been more than that," he snaps. A CSU flack explains the reporter meant 900 Division I games, but Massimino's stare stays fixed on the scribe. "I've coached more games than you have hairs on your head," he rasps. In the uneasy silence that follows, he makes his exit.

And that's how he acts after a win.

Massimino could be excused if he's tired and cranky even in victory -- an 8-20 record will do that to a 68-year-old man. The Vikings, who were on a seven-game losing bender before downing Youngstown, have death-spiraled to the bottom of the Horizon League. Never mind the icy winds pistol-whipping Cleveland this winter -- it's draftier inside the Convo, where on average 12,000 of the 13,600 seats remain empty when CSU plays. Colder still is fan support for Massimino, who perhaps owes thanks to the arena's no-smoking policy for the fact that he hasn't been burned in effigy.

"I think they need a new coach," says Steve Chesler, a CSU freshman among the 1,109 lonely souls watching the Youngstown game. "The team's too talented to not be playing better."

Adds season-ticket holder Bob Szamiszlo, a 1960 alum: "There was all this hype when they hired Rollie. But now I think they have to do something, or this program is going to go" -- he makes a plunging motion with his hand -- "right down."

Seven years of hoops poverty under Massimino -- no NCAA or NIT bids, a 90-111 record, a lower winning percentage than Mike Boyd, his predecessor -- have stoked the cries for a coup. Whether Massimino stays or departs, however, his legend left the building long ago. Since winning a national title with Villanova in 1985, he's descended from basketball icon to caricature to something far worse: ignored.

"I can never remember a coach of such high stature falling off the face of the earth the way he has," says Philadelphia Daily News hoops writer Mike Kern, who covered Massimino at Villanova. "You never hear his name. It's like he went to Tibet or something."

Eighteen years ago, everybody knew Daddy Mass, the Italian dervish who whirled along the sidelines like a Weeble on speed. His Wildcats stole the NCAA crown from Georgetown in one of the all-time upsets in tourney lore. The sawed-off Massimino, described by Sports Illustrated as "a cigar-smoking pudge of a character," became America's coach.

These days, about the only attention Massimino receives comes from, a website that pleads "Get rid of him already!" His 500th career win last season went virtually unnoticed, compared to the ink devoted to two of his ex-players getting busted for robbing Tribe pitcher C.C. Sabathia. At CSU, he's taunted as a LMOC -- "little man on campus" -- whose reputation shrinks by the game.

"It hurts a little bit," Massimino admits, before quickly finding cover under a cliché. "But I can't worry about that. I worry about coaching basketball."

He spoke of grander ambitions when Cleveland State hired him in 1996, a decade after its lone trip to the NCAA dance. It appeared the perfect marriage of small-time school to big-name coach. Massimino would give CSU its first serious dose of national press since 1990, when former coach Kevin Mackey played pick-n-roll with a rock of crack. The school would give its new coach -- after he'd walked out on Nova and flamed out at UNLV -- another chance to trade his Gucci loafers for glass slippers. As he told reporters after his hiring, "I eventually want to win a league championship and get to a major tournament."

Those dreams now seem like delusions. After improving their record in each of Massimino's first five seasons, the Vikings hawked up a 12-16 mark last year. This season, the team has shown the spark of a chain gang -- and about as much motion on offense, with its leading scorer averaging 12 points.

"It's been tough to watch," says CSU law student Chris Congeni, during a 70-51 loss to Detroit Mercy. A friend sitting nearby escapes the game's tedium by reading the paper. "You get the feeling Rollie doesn't want to turn his guys loose."

The same knock has dogged Massimino since the late '80s, when the NCAA introduced the shot clock and three-point arc to open up scoring. He still coaches the sluggish, half-court offense that he favored at Villanova, clinging to "a kind of game that really isn't played anymore," says Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Dick Jerardi. It's a common sentiment: that winning the title convinced Massimino he didn't need to change his style -- or listen to mere mortals. "After '85, he started to think he invented the game and knew more about the game than anyone else," Jerardi says. "And his career has gone straight down since then."

Massimino's critics tick off a litany of beefs. They rap him for recruiting more players from Philly and France than Cleveland. They accuse him of delegating too much control to his cadre of assistants. (One joke goes that he has more dark-suited minions than a mob capo.) They also wonder if his Depression-era bones can keep up with players too young to remember his championship team.

"The fire's not there like it used to be," says Dan Avis, executive director of CSU's alumni athletic club. He recalls how Massimino, in his first years at CSU, would windmill his arms to whip up crowd noise. In the first half of the Detroit Mercy game, the old Daddy Mass makes a cameo -- waddling furiously along the sidelines, sweating as much as his players. But by the second, with the Titans in command, he appears under anesthesia, staring blankly at the action or walking with his head down.

Says season-ticket holder Mike Deneen: "He doesn't seem like the Rollie of old, going after the refs, jumping around, having fun."

Massimino's face resembles a soft fist. It clenches tight at mention of the age factor. "I kind of bristle when I hear that. I'd like to have those people see practice and see if they can keep up with me."

On a recent weekday, he sustains a frenetic pace and patter during drills. He crisscrosses the court with penguin steps as he barks out plays during a scrimmage, his thick Philly accent caroming around the Convo. About every 30 seconds, he claps his hands and yells "Here we go!" -- which he blurts out as "Herewego!" His players' spirited mood may be helped by going up against an opponent they can actually handle -- themselves. Still, Massimino insists, "These are the two funnest hours of my day."

His squad returns the love. "We believe in our coach," junior guard Percell Coles says. "We know he's doing everything he can, just like we are."

The peculiar joys of hardwood life drew Massimino back into coaching in 1996. Two years earlier, he'd left UNLV after strong-arming the school into a $1.9 million buyout, including payment for a secret contract he'd brokered to pad his base salary. (Disclosure of the deal led to calls for his head.) During his time off, he honed his golf game, dabbled in broadcasting -- and climbed the walls. "I missed being around young people," he says. "I'm a teacher. I'm a coach. It's what I want to do."

Yet basketball insiders say the first notation on Massimino's to-do list reads "Look out for No. 1." Long before he squeezed UNLV for his buyout, reporters dubbed him "America's guest," for his purported love of fame's perks -- free meals, travel, hotel rooms. Dim as the limelight shines on Cleveland State, being its coach still holds more cachet than flashing an AARP card.

"On the one hand, he says he loves teaching and coaching," says Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Joe Juliano, who began covering Massimino in the '70s. "On the other, you see a guy who's not willing to retire, even though the game's passed him by. He doesn't want to leave because he doesn't know what to do away from the game."

Which isn't to imply that everyone wants the Vikings coach carried away on his shield. Some fans reason that in the Horizon League -- also known as Complete Oblivion -- a former national coach of the year still beats the alternative. "It's not as if Dean Smith is sitting next to the phone, waiting for CSU to call," Deneen says.

Even rival coaches root for the man seen as a cross between Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci. "He helps the entire league have a little more visibility," says Youngstown State coach John Robic. "I'd love to be able to keep going up against him."

"If Cleveland State makes the mistake of getting rid of Rollie," adds Temple coach John Chaney, "any other school would be happy to have him."

CSU Athletic Director Lee Reed won't tip his hand, saying a decision regarding Massimino, whose contract runs through 2005, will wait until season's end. The coach, for his part, says he wants to stick around -- though he shrugs when asked if he'll call the Convo home next year. "I don't know the answer to that," he says. "Everyone wants a winner; I understand that. All I can say is, I'm doing the best I can."

His hoops addiction amuses longtime pal Chuck Daly, the retired NBA coach who hired Massimino as an assistant at Penn in 1971. Daly likes to chide his friend about roaming the sidelines at an age when most men are worrying about their prostate. "You're a lifer," Daly tells him.

That appears true. But someone should let him know that's not always a good thing.

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