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Mike Rhoades, VCU basketball coach, cut his teeth on politics

November 7, 2018

Mike Rhoades got a very early introduction to politics in rural Pennsylvania, thanks to his late father.

“I remember getting out of school and getting in the car and going to other towns and knocking on doors, and campaigning for him,” recalls Rhoades, 46, who is the Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach. “He went door-to-door and spent time with people.”

Rhoades turned 8 in the fall of 1980 and that year his father, James, ran for the state Senate as a Republican.

The family lived in Mahanoy City, a town of about 4,000 people in east-central Pennsylvania. It’s just south of Luzerne County, where 77 percent of the population voted for President Trump in 2016. James Rhoades had been a junior high principal before running for office.

Rhoades won and spent 28 years in the state Senate, one of the longest tenures in the history of the Commonwealth. His dedication to his constituents, especially those on the fringes, made an impression on Mike Rhoades and his two siblings.

“One of the things that my brother and sister and I are linked to is the work ethic of my father,” said Rhoades, whose VCU team opened the season at home Tuesday with a 69-57 win over Gardner-Webb. “He was a Republican who went across the aisle. He took care of the little people, he took care of his constituents, for people who needed a voice.”

“For 28 years I was in the middle of it. We got those crazy (phone) calls, we saw people knock on (our) door. Now when I read stuff (on national politics) and see stuff ... I respect everybody’s opinions,” he added. “I’m glad I’m a basketball coach and not a politician.”

Sports was also a big part of the family his father coached prep football and the younger Rhoades was a basketball standout in high school at Mahanoy Area and went to Lebanon Valley, a Division III program near Harrisburg.

He led the squad to a 66-59 overtime victory over NYU in the Division III championship contest in 1994. Rhoades was an All-American twice and was named the USA Today Division III national player of the year in 1995.

He played at Lebanon Valley for Pat Flannery, who later became the head coach at Division I Bucknell. The coach that replaced Flannery at Bucknell was Dave Paulsen, now the head coach at George Mason in Fairfax.

Paulsen was the head coach at Division III Williams in Massachusetts when Rhoades was guiding Division III Randolph-Macon, just 90 miles south of the nation’s capital in Ashland, Virginia.

“We bumped heads a little bit in recruiting,” said Paulsen, who won a national title at Williams in 2003. “A really good guy and a really good coach.”

VCU and Mason are both members of the Atlantic 10 Conference and the coaches faced off against each other last season, with each winning on the other’s home floor.

Rhoades was an assistant coach at Randolph-Macon under the late Hal Nunnally, who sent several of his former players and assistants to the Division I ranks.

“That was an apprenticeship. I did everything from washing the uniforms to driving the van,” Rhoades said. “You talk about cutting your teeth; I was cutting my teeth from 23 to 25 (years of age) that way. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

From 1999 to 2009 Rhoades was the head coach at Randolph-Macon, posting a mark of 197-76. He then became an assistant at VCU under Shaka Smart, now the coach at Texas.

Rhoades got to know former Eastern Mennonite University coach Kirby Dean, a former assistant at Division I VMI.

“He was never afraid to share his thoughts,” Dean said. “We developed a friendship and then coached against each other. I am a very conservative, old-school, Bible-believing Christian but we did not talk religion. He was just an easy guy for me to talk to.”

Rhoades was on the committee that hired Ray Hedrick, who grew up in Springfield, to be the baseball coach at Randolph-Macon in 2004. The two families became close, with their wives and daughters spending time together.

“He is a family-first guy,” Hedrick said of Rhoades. “He is well centered, selfless. His number one priority is the quality of life for his family.”

Rhoades was the coach at Division I Rice in Houston for three years and then last season returned to Richmond, guiding the Rams to a mark of 18-15 as VCU failed to advance to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2010.

His father, however, didn’t live long enough to see him become a Division I coach.

Rhoades’ father died on Oct. 18, 2008, one day after being involved in a car crash. Reports at the time had the driver of the other car with an alcohol limit way above the state limits in Pennsylvania. James Rhoades was posthumously elected a few weeks later, with 64 percent of the vote.

Mike Rhoades and his wife, Jodie, have three children. The lessons of his father remain, even though some of his VCU players may share different political views.

“It is easy to protest, it is harder to help (people). What I tell my guys is if you want to make a stand, make a difference. We educate them the best we can,” he said.

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