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Former Rebel remembers Rollie Massimino as ‘great coach, great person’

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In this March 24, 1985, file photo, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino takes a victory ride on his players’ shoulders. 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)

The early 1990s were a tumultuous time for UNLV basketball. Just two years removed from a national championship, the program moved on from legendary head coach Jerry Tarkanian amid much controversy, and it was never going to be easy to replace him in the hearts of Rebels fans.

In that sense, the deck was stacked against Rollie Massimino when he took over the team in 1992-93, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why his two-year tenure didn’t go over well with fans. But after his passing on Wednesday, former UNLV player Dedan Thomas said there was a side to Massimino that the community didn’t really get to see.

“He was a great coach,” Thomas said. “He was a great person, a real good family guy. I enjoyed playing for him, and I learned a lot. He was a really knowledgeable coach, especially on the offensive side. He was a great teacher.”

Thomas played three years at UNLV, with his first season coming under Tarkanian and his final two under Massimino. The Rebels went a combined 36-21 in the two years with Massimino at the helm, but Thomas respected Massimino’s wealth of basketball knowledge and his cerebral approach to the sport.

“Coach Mamssimino was all about being prepared for any situation and having a high knowledge of the game,” Thomas said. “You had to be a smart player to play in his system. At Villanova he recruited more of a student-athlete, so it was a different kind of team, whereas at UNLV it was more of an athlete-athlete. At Villanova his playbook was super thick and he brought that here, as opposed to coach Tark having super monster athletes and a smaller playbook.”

Thomas, who now coaches AAU basketball, is still No. 6 on UNLV’s all-time assists list. He had his most productive season in 1993-94 — Massimino’s final year at UNLV — averaging 9.0 points and 7.3 assists per game.

Massimino won a national championship at Villanova in 1985, and he continued to coach after he left UNLV, first at Cleveland State from 1996 to 2003 and then at Northwood, an NAIA school, from 2006 to 2014. He moved on to another NAIA program, Keiser, in 2014 and was still the coach there when he passed.

Thomas believes that Massimino should be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to basketball.

“I hope people look back on what he brought to the game,” Thomas said. “His fiery attitude. His kids always played hard and smart. He won the national championship and turned out some pro players, and he graduated a lot of kids. He was a good guy. His legacy speaks for itself.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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