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Greatness Begets Greatness

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Chuck Daly, Rollie Massimino & Jay Wright

Coach Wright graciously shared his thoughts with VUHoops.com about a very touching story we came across in an obscure radio interview given by Rollie Massimino days before Nova’s 2009 Final Four game against North Carolina. In vintage form, Rollie covered a lot of ground in that interview. However, a very striking thread emerged from the ramblings of Villanova’s beloved former coach - the richness of the coaching bloodline of the man who now roams the sidelines for the Wildcats.

Coach Mass spoke fondly about his former mentor, Chuck Daly, for whom he served as assistant coach at Penn before taking the head coaching job at Villanova in 1973. Daly went on to coach the Detroit Pistons, win NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal coaching the original "Dream Team," earn accolades as one of the NBA’s ten greatest coaches and election to The Basketball Hall of Fame.

Rollie, of course, led Villanova to its only NCAA championship in 1985 as an eighth-seeded team, beating Georgetown in the game that is generally acknowledged as the birth of the phenomenon now known as March Madness. He went on to become mentor to Jay Wright, who became Rollie’s assistant at Villanova in 1987. Jay took over as the Cat’s eighth head coach in 2001, and over eight seasons has led Villanova to four “Sweet 16s,” two “Elite Eight’s,” and one “Final Four,” each time eliminated by the eventual NCAA champion.

In a poignant moment in the interview, Rollie told a story about a visit he made earlier that day to Chuck Daly, then hospitalized and in the final chapter of a losing battle with pancreatic cancer. What happened during that visit may well come to symbolize the passing of the torch from Daly through Massimino to Wright. Recalls Rollie, “Chuck [was] not in very good condition at that stage and not feeling well after his chemotherapy session. [When I got to his room] he asked me sit on the bed next to him. He had a piece of paper and [was diagramming] a play that he used when he coached the Pistons. He wanted me to give it to Jay. I felt so good about that. I’ve got it in my pocket. To me that’s very special and I know it’s going to be special to Jay.”

We wondered about the secret play and whether the Cats actually used it during the North Carolina game. Coach Wright agreed to solve the mystery, telling VUHoops that “after seeing [Nova] throw the ball away against the press in the closing seconds of the Pitt game, [Coach Daly] was worried that if Carolina pressed us, we wouldn’t be able to inbound. He wrote up a special press-break play for us.” It appears, however, that the secret play almost didn’t arrive in time, taking a circuitous route before reaching Coach Wright. Said Jay, “Coach Mass was so busy at the Final Four that he handed-off the play to the brother of [Coach] Pat Chambers, who gave it to Pat, who gave it to me. I did have an opportunity to speak to Coach Daley before the Carolina game to thank him and to tell him we were thinking about him. We had a great talk.” Ironically, added Coach Wright, “We didn’t get pressed [by Carolina] so we never used the play!”

Chuck Daly passed away five weeks later at the age of 78. I am sure his press-break play will be forever part of Coach Wright’s arsenal. However, beyond its utilitarian benefits, one cannot help seeing an analogy to “The Last Lecture” by Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch shortly before his untimely death at age 47, also from pancreatic cancer. Just as Professor Pausch’s message had little to do with his expertise in virtual reality, the significance of that nugget of parting wisdom from the greatest of all Philadelphia basketball coaches transcends sport. Coach Mass was right when he said, “it’s going to be special to Jay,” and it certainly means far more to him than simply an elegant solution to the Pitt press.