Drunken driver death of Mike Rhoades’ dad caused epiphany: Make coaching, basketball and life fun
Not gonna lie. I might’ve seen Rice three times total in all of Mike Rhoades’ three years as head coach of the Houston school. It’s not like there were that many chances to see them on Conference USA television.
But when I did see them on a laptop replay of the Charlotte game in January, I was stunned to see Rhoades’ team jacking up 70 shots and sort of kicking the ball around a little (15 turnovers) in an 89-70 win. This was nothing like any spawn of Pat Flannery I knew.
Although, it was the way Rhoades tended to play at Lebanon Valley College:
“Yeah, I was the only one who did it,” he cracked on Wednesday by phone from Richmond. “I’d come down the court and let fly and then he’d give me that look.”
Still, coaches tend to revert to their mentors when they, themselves, start earning a paycheck. As Rhoades pretty much had earlier in his coaching career.
Well, there’s a reason for his transition to fast-n-loose, it turns out. Though the new Virginia Commonwealth head coach and former Lebanon Valley star was groomed under the meticulous eye of one of the most careful basketball tacticians ever and learned a whole bunch in the process, he’s his own head coach. He’s taken a little from Column A (Flannery) and a little from Column B (his VCU mentor Shaka Smart) but morphed both stints into a style of play that’s really not like either.
When Rhoades got his first head coaching shot at Randolph-Macon (1999-2009), his Yellow Jackets played at a reasonable pace. When he joined Smart at VCU as an assistant, a light bulb went off and he and Smart let loose the Rams leashes a bit. And with his first D-I gig at Rice, his Owls played fast. They popped the first decent three they saw. They pushed everything. They dared opponents to try to guard them in transition.
“I think it’s really hard to guard that,” said Rhoades. “Defensive transition is the hardest thing to be good at. So, why don’t we make that our advantage?
“Because if we had played foul line and in? We were gonna get destroyed. Teams were all bigger and stronger than we were. We needed to play in space and downhill.”
And that raucous style turned the pathetic remains of a corpse program under weary Ben Braun (7-23 in 2014) into a 20-game winner and postseason participant in 2017. Rice didn’t have an awful lot of talent and never really had a true point guard. The Owls finished worst in C-USA in turnovers (which is hard to do).
“But when you do that, with a lot of coaches, you lose control,” Rhoades acknowledged. “You gotta live with some real fast shots. But I’m OK with that.”
The Owls played hard and fast and entertained both their fans and themselves on the way to a 23-12 record. They ranked 22nd in the nation in scoring (81.5 pts), 21st in both 3PG made (326) and 3P% (.389), 20th in possessions (76.1) and 16th-fastest in tempo.
What happened to Mike Rhoades that he would drop the reins altogether, yell out “Yee-aghh!” and let the horses blast his stage coach along as fast as they pleased?
It goes back exactly nine years, his last year at Randolph-Macon.
“Early on, I had to have control of everything,” admitted Rhoades. “But finally late in my 10 years there, I said to myself: You know what? This is a players’ game. I gotta let these guys have more fun and let them be more open.
“I started letting guys have more freedom, have more decision-making and play faster. We weren’t living and dying by every play. And I really liked it.”
But why? What was the epiphany?
“Two things: First, I felt like I was living and dying on every play. And I was getting frustrated with players I really liked to coach who weren’t perfect. Then, you’re mad. And I didn’t wanna be so mad coaching basketball.”
But then, the other thing?
It was the mid-October day in 2008 as Rhoades was preparing his final RMC team and got a call that his parents’ car had been struck by a drunk driver back home in Pennsylvania as they were headed to a Friday night high school football game. His father Jim, a longtime PA state senator from Mahanoy City, was killed.
“My dad enjoyed life. He worked hard for everybody. He did things the right way. Took care of the little people.
“One thing my siblings always said was: He always prepared us for this moment if it ever happened. There was a lot of love and a lot of fun in our family.
“I asked myself: Why can’t I work and coach that way, too? I began to look at a lot of things differently.”
And so began a new way of thinking about a game – as a game. It carried over into the way VCU played under Smart and Rhoades, blasting through an unprecedented 6-game run from the inaugural First Four, barely in the NCAA tournament, through upsets of Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, all the way to the 2011 Final Four in Houston. Who knew he’d be back in town for his first D-I head coaching job within three years?
“This is not life and death,” Rhoades decided. “This is basketball.
“Now, it’s very important to everybody.”
Not the least of whom the good folks in Richmond who’ve come to expect strings of Ws from their VCU Rams. Rhoades knows this. He knows he’s not in Houston anymore. But his core philosophy remains unwavering:
“It just seems like when people are having more fun, the work’s still hard but it’s enjoyable. And it just seems like the results you want come to you.
“No coach in college basketball is going to have more fun than I am.”
You’d think, somewhere, Jim Rhoades is smiling at that notion.
DAVID JONES: email@example.com