They say those who can’t play, coach. Well, Mike Rhoades can coach, and he could certainly play.
In some ways, it seems that everything Rhoades has ever done has led up to this moment. And that his time spent at Lebanon Valley College 25 years ago as a player helped form into the coach – and person – he is today.
Rhoades continues to enjoy coaching success on the NCAA Division One college level, at Virginia Commonwealth University. While that may be surprising to some, it isn’t to those who saw him compete as a floor general for the Flying Dutchmen in the middle of the 1990s.
Currently, Rhoades and the Rams sport a 12-3 overall mark, and a 2-0 record in the Atlantic Ten Conference. Virginia Commonwealth has been ranked in or around the top 25 college teams in the country for most of the season.
“Everything, my experiences at Lebanon Valley molded me into who I am, what I believe as a coach and how we play,” said Rhoades, during a phone interview on Tuesday. “Especially the tough times, the things that didn’t go my way. They helped me out the most.
“When I was in grade school, my uncle was the coach at Mahanoy Area, and I was the ball boy,” continued Rhoades. “Later, I was the point guard. I wanted to be in the gym as much as I could, but I wanted to play. But when I realized I couldn’t play, my desire to coach was there.”
In 1995, Rhoades was the key cog in the Lebanon Valley College’s drive to its only NCAA Division Three national championship. In the final game, the Flying Dutchmen defeated New York University 66-59 in the overtime of a memorable and dramatic contest.
During his playing days, Rhoades was known as much for his leadership qualities, quick decision-making and knowledge of the game as he was for his assists, ballhandling or shooting.
“What I remember most is my great teammates,” said Rhoades, who’s in his third season as the head man at Virginia Commonwealth. “They’re my best friends in the world. I also remember my relationships with Coach (Pat) Flannery and Coach (Brad) McAlester. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t talk to someone from Lebanon Valley. The games were awesome, but I forged great relationships.
“As a player, I was very competitive, I worked really hard and I was very bull-headed,” Rhoades continued. “I made the game harder than I had to. But I matured because I had good coaches around me. Those are some of the lessons I learned as a player that I can relate to my guys, because I’ve been there.”
Rhoades was named USA-Today’s Division Three Player-of-the-Year in 1995 and was twice tabbed as a D-III All-American. His number-five jersey now hangs in the rafters of LVC’s Lou Sorrentino Gymnasium – never to be worn again – and he still holds program records for career free-throw percentage (.845), assists (668) and steals (212).
“When I was at Mahanoy Area, I was 6-0 and 160 pounds,” said Rhoades. “I was recruited by all different levels. But Coach Flannery and Coach (Don) Friday made me a priority. It was a blessing in disguise. I think my parents helped by telling me going where I was wanted was more important than where I went. That place for me happened to be LVC. I also met professors there who invested in my growth. People held me to a higher standard that I did myself. I became the best version of myself. If you would’ve ask me if I would’ve traded places, with LVC and Duke, I’d say ‘no way.’
“Everybody wants to play at the biggest, baddest place,” added Rhoades. “They look at levels. But it’s finding the right place for yourself. I was very fortunate I had people in my life who were going to impact me. Coach Flannery and Coach McAlester are still two of my best friends. I talk to them all the time.”
After graduating from Lebanon Valley, Rhoades wasted little time landing a significant coaching job.
He was an assistant coach at Randolf-Macon from 1996-99, before becoming the head coach there. Between 2009-14, Rhoades was an assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth, then became the head coach at Rice, before returning to the Rams at the start of the 2017-18 campaign.
“I was a head coach at 25,” said Rhoades, 47. “There was a lot of trial and error for me. It’s all about learning more, growing and moving forward, and keep asking questions. I love that part of coaching. I think I’m a much better communicator than I was 20 years ago. I’m a better game coach. You sit on the bench and watch and learn. I always want to build a better relationship with my players. If you make them better people, they’ll be better players.
“This program has been successful for a long, long time,” Rhoades added. “It’s always won. When you change head coaches, there’s always changes in the roster. We had sort of a rebuild, without losing our standards. I think we’re doing the right things.”
Rhoades the coach has evolved as part teacher, part psychologist, part talent evaluator.
In his first season as VCU’s head coach, Rhoades and the Rams won 18 games during the program’s 18th straight winning season. Last season, Virginia Commonwealth won 25 games, captured the Atlantic Ten regular-season championship, advanced to the NCAA Tournament and Rhoades was named the A-10 Coach of the Year.
“I’m really fired up. I’m excited with where we’re at,” said Rhoades. “I like our young guys and how they’ve improved. I like where we’re at, but we’re never satisfied. We’ve got to continue to move forward. If you keep working hard, you’re going to continue to move the program forward.
“If you play great all year long, it solves everything,” continued Rhoades. “I like every improvement, by individuals and the team, throughout the year. If you do that, it puts you in position in March to be a tough team to beat.”
During Rhoades’ two-plus seasons at VCU, the Rams have compiled an overall record of 54-26. To date, Rhoades’ overall coaching record stands at 299-54.
“I just want to continue to get better in all facets of my life, and coaching,” said Rhoades. “I take great pride in that. I’m trying to build VCU into the best program it can be. You’ve just got to work hard and give yourself opportunities for success.
“I’m no different than anyone else,” concluded Rhoades. “I’m like every other player at Lebanon Valley. If you want something, you’ve got to work hard at it and live it. Bet on yourself. I’ve always done that, every step of the way. Surround yourself with good people and treat people right.”
It would seem that Rhoades’ LVC education has served him well.