At Penn State Schuylkill's 90th anniversary party, Mike Rhoades reflects on life, basketball career

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN — Looking back on his career, Mike Rhoades believes that all of his professional success can be traced back and attributed to what was perhaps the most important four-year period in his life: his time at Lebanon Valley College.

In a rare public appearance in his native Schuylkill County, the head coach of the Penn State men’s basketball team offered reflections on myriad aspects of his life and career, including his years as the Dutchmen’s star basketball player from 1991-95.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t choose Lebanon Valley,” Rhoades said Wednesday. “And I think Lebanon Valley chose me, too.”

Rhoades, 51, was featured in a panel at Penn State Schuylkill, which hosted a scholarship party celebrating the campus’ 90th anniversary. Speaking with moderator Kayla Felty, the campus’ director of athletics, Rhoades shared stories, insights and other developments relating to his lifelong basketball journey before a crowd of about 100 people at the Student Community Center’s John E. Morgan Auditorium.

Growing up in Mahanoy City, where he played for his uncle and head basketball coach Mickey Holland, Rhoades acquired a grittiness and toughness characteristic of the coal region.

Rhoades recalled how, as a kid, he was often involved in scuffles at the Saint Canicus playground, where he’d be beaten up and hurt.

“I’ve learned to probably carry that over to my team in specific ways,” he said. “Be tougher than everybody else, take more than everybody else, and no excuses. I learned that, definitely, here in Schuylkill County.”

Rhoades, the son of late state Sen. James J. Rhoades, also credited his parents and other family members for teaching him values of hard work and persistence.

While he was overlooked by many college recruiters, the 6-foot, 165-pound point guard would find his perfect fit in Lebanon Valley College, where he played for Pottsville native Pat Flannery, earned multiple All-American and Middle Atlantic Conference Player of the Year honors and contributed to the team’s NCAA Division III national championship in 1994.

“I averaged 38 minutes a game for four years,” Rhoades said. “That means I was always playing. I loved the game too much to sit on the bench or maybe wait my turn. I think I picked the right school at the right time, with a coach that was really tough on me — and I wanted that — and a coach who was a point guard like I was.”

Rhoades described the school’s important formative influence on his interests and pursuits.

“It was a place where I kept moving forward in all aspects of my life,” he said, “and I think every year, I became a little bit more mature, getting ready for the real world. … I always tell players and recruits, ‘Go where they want you.’ The bells and whistles sound great. But buildings and doors and fancy gyms don’t impact you — people do. If you find a place with the right people, I think it would really do wonders for you.”

After a brief stint as a professional player in France, Rhoades returned to his hometown and became a long-term substitute teacher.

Not satisfied with that venture, he would ultimately find his calling at 23, when he became an assistant basketball coach at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.

He was promoted to head coach in 1999 and served in that capacity until 2009.

Rhoades then worked at Virginia Commonwealth University as an associate head coach, then took over as head coach of Rice University before returning to VCU as its head coach.

Rhoades, who took over Penn State’s program last year, acknowledged the challenges of his inaugural season with the Nittany Lions.

Among its many roadblocks, he cited a tough 76-67 home loss to Bucknell University on Dec. 2, which was the program’s Schuylkill County Day.

“We hit rock bottom,” Rhoades said. “We were very selfish, we were making too many excuses. I pretty much said, ‘Guys, either the season’s going to be like this tonight, or we’re going to come in here tomorrow and figure it out. But it’s our choice.’ But to the players’ credit, they came in, and we just kept getting better and better and moving forward.”

After an up-and-down year with a rebuilding Nittany Lions team, which finished with a 16-17 record, Rhoades feels optimistic about the talent on next year’s roster.

“We’re going to have size that we’ll be able to match up with teams in the Big Ten,” he said. “We’ve recruited to how we want to play — fast and aggressive, with guys that can press.”

Rhoades credited his former coaches and colleagues for molding his current coaching style. At VCU, he said, he observed head coach Shaka Smart’s uncanny ability for building relationships with his players — which included knowing that, to “reach their hearts, you need to get through their belly.”

Likewise, Rhoades hosts dinners frequently at his house for his players. When new recruits arrive in town, he said, he makes a point to pick them up at the airport himself.

“I want them to know that I’m there for them all the time,” Rhoades said.

Rhoades recognized the important and life-altering impact the Schuylkill campus has had on students in the community.

The son of former teachers, Rhoades said there’s “nothing better” than the value of a good education and the chance to help people pursue their goals.

“I’ve been coaching for 29 years, and I forget all the baskets, I forget the big plays that we called, and you forget the championships and all that stuff,” he said, “but you do remember the impact that you have on people. And you do remember helping a young person move forward in their life.”

Wednesday’s event raised over $25,000 in proceeds, which will benefit the Penn State Schuylkill Campus Advisory Board Scholarship.

In honor of its 90th anniversary, Penn State Schuylkill received proclamations from state Sen. David G. Argall, R-29, Rush Twp., the Schuylkill County delegation of state representatives and the county commissioners.

Before the program, guests were served food and drinks by the campus’ catering service, Metz Culinary Management.

The event was open to all community members; the cost to attend was $90.

Also, in conjunction with its 90th year, the campus has released a new video called “One Community Impacting Many,” as part of a universitywide initiative to share the impact that Penn State campuses have in their respective communities.

The video, which can be viewed on Penn State Schuylkill’s website, shows scenes from the campus, local employers, research facilities and the campus’ co-op program.