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Since The Days Of Rollie, Wildcats Have Been On A Roller Coaster

February 29, 1996

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Maybe they do take their college basketball a little too seriously in Philadelphia. There are residents of the nation’s birthplace who believe the spirits that guide the sport have spoken.

Don’t laugh.

Go from one pretzel stand to another and it’s a safe bet you can find somebody who will say Villanova is only getting what it deserves for its role in ruining the city’s intramural obsession _ the Big Five.

``I’ve heard that from three or four people since I got here,″ Gene DeFilippo said with a laugh. He has been the athletic director at Villanova since July 1993. ``I really don’t believe that.″

After all, Villanova is ranked sixth, has won a national championship and a Big East title in the last 11 years, has a relatively new on-campus facility and has a player of All-America caliber as its star. Could it really be the victim of bad karma?

Well, consider:

_ The euphoria of the 1985 NCAA championship was doused by Sports Illustrated’s story by point guard Gary McLain about his cocaine use.

_ The bond between basketball-crazy city and championship coach never blossomed. When Rollie Massimino left for UNLV in 1992, even Villanova students cheered.

_ The 6,500-seat John E. duPont Pavilion, opened in 1986, gave Villanova an intimate home court in a league criticized for having too many huge public arenas. But the gift became tainted when DuPont was accused of shooting and killing an Olympic wrestler on his estate.

_ The Wildcats won the Big East tournament last March for the first time. Five days later, they were bounced out of the NCAA tournament in the opening round, falling to Old Dominion in triple overtime.

_ This season’s team was 23-3 when senior guard Kerry Kittles, the Big East player of the year last season, was suspended by the NCAA for the last three regular-season games for unauthorized use of a university telephone credit card. Without Kittles, the Wildcats have gone 1-1.

OK, so it’s hardly supernatural stuff. But it’s enough to make a lot of people happy, people who felt Villanova practically destroyed the Big Five, Philadelphia’s greatest basketball tradition.

Since 1955, Philadelphia’s five schools played each other every year, a city champion was crowned and a Big Five all-star team selected.

But in 1991, Massimino decided the demands of the Big East schedule and television commitments were too much and got Villanova out of the Big Five schedule with Temple, St. Joseph’s, La Salle and Penn. Since then, a team has played only two city opponents a season.

Big Five executive secretary Dan Baker said Massimino was blamed for the change that altered forever the camaraderie that had always existed among the member schools and the lively rivalry among their fans.

``Rollie Massimino could have been the Joe Paterno of Philadelphia,″ Baker said. ``He would have been revered here. Toward the end, he was shouted down in restaurants by people.

``There are some who will never forgive Villanova for their part in diluting the Big Five city series concept. A lot have forgiven them because they are still a member and couple of their most important players are from Philadelphia _ Jason Lawson and Alvin Williams. Unlike Rollie Massimino, Steve Lappas wants to recruit the city of Philadelphia.″

Lappas, Massimino’s assistant in the championship season, succeeded his former boss and has helped ease the bad feelings through recruiting and a policy of civic pride.

The other person who has gotten credit for rebuilding Villanova’s ties to its city is DeFilippo, who came to Villanova after six years as assistant athletic director at Kentucky.

``Gene DeFilippo recognized the benefit of unifying Philadelphia basketball fans,″ Baker said. ``I think there has been a lot of healing recently.″

DeFilippo grew up in Massachusetts and, as an avid college basketball fan, he knew what the Big Five meant and can mean.

``I never got the feeling that it was that deep, but I definitely felt there were some people who were very, very disappointed in Villanova for pulling out of it,″ he said. ``I tried to be as understanding as I could, as honest and forthright as I could be in explaining Villanova’s position. People at least told me they really appreciated the honesty.

``I learned from coach Bear Bryant that you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. I know the Big Five is a very big part of Villanova’s past and everything we’ve done has been to rekindle that past.″

And maybe, just maybe, the Philadelphia basketball spirits will allow something good to happen to Villanova with nothing to taint it.

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