Lappas: From Daddy Mass to UMass
By Dick Jerardi, The Philadelphia Daily News, 10/24/2001

AMHERST, Mass. - Steve Lappas has been in his house just four weeks. The lawns in the new development are still mostly mud. You must use your imagination to see the future.

Last March, Lappas was pretty certain of his future. Then, after one wild weekend, he wasn't.

He had three years left on his contract as basketball coach at Villanova. Then, on a Friday afternoon he was gone. By that Monday, he was the coach at the University of Massachusetts. And Jay Wright was quickly introduced as Villanova coach.

The spin was that Lappas got a better offer from UMass and decided to leave. The reality was that he was pressured to leave. Nobody at Villanova will say that. Lappas won't even say it. But everybody involved in the process knows it's true.

What Lappas did or did not do at Villanova can be debated. He inherited a declining program in 1992 and made it a national contender in less than three years. In his fourth year, the Wildcats won a school-record 26 games. Lappas lost three NCAA Tournament games as a higher seed. His players graduated and did not turn up on the police blotter. His last two teams could not beat the opponents they had to beat.

If the Wildcats had won one more game in each of Lappas' last two seasons, they almost certainly would have made the NCAA Tournament instead of being among the final few teams not chosen. If last season's team had not shown a complete inability to handle pressure, that one missing win would have not have been an issue.

The debate is actually pointless. Nobody's opinion of Lappas was going to change, regardless of the facts. Sides had been chosen and no fact was going to change any opinion.

Two weeks ago, seated at the dining-room table of his new house with wife Harriet nearby, Lappas spoke about his old life at Villanova and his new life at UMass. He also spoke for the first time about his fractured relationship with his mentor, the man who brought him into college basketball: former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino.

"I really loved coaching at Villanova," Lappas said. "I enjoyed my nine years there. I always felt that I was going to be there for 25 years."

And. . .

"The way things developed, it didn't seem to be in my best interest or my family's best interest to continue, and the UMass opportunity was just too good to pass up," Lappas said. "They presented me with an opportunity to build another program like at Manhattan and Villanova."

It was a politically correct statement that didn't take a genius to interpret.

"What is most disappointing about not being at Villanova," Lappas said, "is not being the coach where Alvin Williams played, where Kerry Kittles played, where Jason Lawson played, where Jon Haynes played."

He will, Lappas said, miss the players.

"Some of my best friends in life I met there and I have some great relationships that I'll miss," Lappas said. "From 1984, even with the four years at Manhattan, I was a Villanova guy all those years. So, for 17 years, I was a Villanova guy. It's kind of where I grew up. I'm going to miss that feeling."

Villanova was Lappas' dream job almost from the moment Massimino brought him aboard as an assistant in 1984. The two men met when Massimino was recruiting Rod Strickland, who played for Lappas at Truman High in the Bronx, N.Y.

Lappas' first year at Massimino's side ended on the floor of Rupp Arena when the Wildcats won their impossible dream of a national championship in 1985.

Lappas became head coach at Manhattan in 1988. When Massimino departed for Nevada-Las Vegas in 1992, Lappas got in line at Villanova. He was not the first choice - that was Xavier's Pete Gillen - or even the second. But he was persistent and got the job.

There was one serious problem.

According to Lappas, Massimino urged him not to take the job, said it was a bad job.

Lappas, a young coach with a young family, took the job. Massimino immediately cut him off from his extended coaching family.

"We haven't spoken in nine years," Lappas said. "I shouldn't say that. We've said hello during that time, a wave, a quick shake."

It's nothing like the close relationship they once had.

"I almost don't even know why or how it evolved the way it did," Lappas said. "We were very close in my four years there and my four years at Manhattan. He stayed in my house when he'd come and recruit.

"I went to him a couple of times to tell him I wanted our relationship to stay the way it was. It just never did for some reason."

Lappas doesn't understand why Massimino did not want him to take the Villanova job.

"I don't know why," Lappas said. "People are going to have to infer that on their own. At that point, we had a tremendous relationship, and he told me not to take the job. He did not want me to take that job. . .

"Maybe there was somebody else he wanted to have the job besides me. Maybe he had it planned a different way. I don't know any of those things. I wasn't privy to how he was thinking at that time or why he was thinking that way."

To this day, Lappas hasn't gotten over it.

"I can't tell you how much it hurts," Lappas said. "I know I would not be in the position I am in today if it weren't for Rollie Massimino. There's no doubt. If he thinks I don't understand, that's crazy. Of course I understand that. There's no question that that would be the case. Yeah, it hurts, especially when I can't really figure out, outside of taking the job, what I did."

Mutual friends have tried to put mentor and coach back together, but according to Lappas, "it's never happened."

Ironically, Massimino, who had little relationship with Villanova for years, is now a presence on campus again. He and Wright are close. Massimino will be on campus Saturday night for "The Legend of Villanova Basketball." Lappas won't attend.

Asked for a response to what Lappas said about their relationship, Massimino, now the coach at Cleveland State, said: "Quite frankly, I don't want to get involved in that. I think I'm beyond that. He has his team. We have our team and Jay has his team. We all coach our own teams."

Asked to elaborate, Massimino said: "I wish him luck with his team. I wish all my guys [luck]. I've got 27 guys out there, so he's just one of many."

Nine years later after Massimino left and Lappas arrived, Massimino is more or less back. And Lappas is gone.

UMass is far different from Villanova.

"It's not the Main Line," Lappas said. "I'm enjoying the change. I think it's a great place. It's a beautiful part of the country.

"The people are really excited that we are here. They've publicized it that they're the first Atlantic 10 team to get a Big East coach to come here."

Administrative support has been there from the start. His predecessor, Bruiser Flint - now the Drexel coach - resigned under pressure last spring after a 15-15 season, five years after UMass went to the Final Four in John Calipari's final season. Lappas inherits a team with a strong frontcourt and an unproven backcourt, a team still capable of contending in the A-10.

"The [UMass] president [William Bulger] has been unbelievable," Lappas said. "He's so excited for us to be here. He's been very supportive and very positive about everything. He was never a big basketball fan before, but he told me he's not going to miss a game now."

Still, there is no denying it has been hard for Lappas to put Villanova in his rearview mirror. It absolutely was his dream job.

Has it been hard to get beyond it?

"In some ways yes and in some ways no," Lappas said. "You grow up a little bit. I'm 47 now. I've been doing this for a while. Am I happy about the way things evolved there? No. I'm not, but I'm certainly ready and willing and able and looking forward to the future at UMass."

Evolved?

"I think back to how we won a Big East championship, the only one in the history of the school, the NIT championship, beat North Carolina twice in a season, going undefeated in the Big 5 last year and doing pretty well in the Big 5 for the most part," Lappas said. "I just felt we left some things there. I know a lot of the people appreciated some of the things and I know that there were others that didn't appreciate it."

Why was that?

"There were some people there who didn't like the way I was, didn't like my style for whatever reason," Lappas said. "This is what I am. I am the son of a very emotional Greek immigrant. I'm proud to say that and will say it to the day I die. . .

"I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I got along great with all the people at Villanova. I got along great with four athletic directors and I got along great with the referees and the other coaches in our league. It seems some of the people who didn't know me didn't like me."

It was what people did not know that eventually hurt Lappas the most. Perception became reality.

"A lot of people just had made their minds up by the way I was on the sideline," Lappas said. "People didn't know the relationship I had with the players, the relationship with the people on campus."

When he left, Lappas met with his players.

"I told them this is not the way I had it planned, but this is what I have to do," Lappas said.

He said he also told them, "When I recruited you, I had every intention of being here until you graduate, but things have evolved this way and it's best for me to move on."

Things evolved. Lappas' base of support eroded. He was there one day and gone the next.

Now, he is at UMass. He will be back in Philadelphia every season to play at Saint Joseph's and Temple. He will be back every other season to play at La Salle. He just won't be playing them as Villanova coach. And he won't be playing Villanova.


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