The list of accomplishments from VCU Associate Head Coach Mike Rhoades’ playing career is probably as long as his arm. National Champion, National Player of the Year, 2,000 points scored, retired jersey. I could go on.
Most of VCU’s players were in diapers when Rhoades was terrorizing Division III for Lebanon Valley College from 1991-95. Rhoades is 39 years old now. Most of his peers have crammed their athletic memories into a worn shoebox in the attic by now, next to the dusty high school yearbooks. If you want to see them cross somebody over, you’ll need to hang on a minute while they go dig the VHS player out of the garage, or wherever the heck it is.
But if you want to see Rhoades come off screens, bury 3-pointers and talk a little trash, you can drop by Franklin Street Gym when the Rams practice. Rhoades, like a few of VCU’s coaches, regularly participates in drills and plays in scrimmages with the team. Consider him a basketball visual aid.
It’s not an uncommon practice, but when people start making statements like, “Mike Rhoades is our best practice player,” it’s worthy of an investigation. At first, it sounded like some kind of Paul Bunyan-sian myth. Does he play barefoot too? Dropkick 3-pointers? But then VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart lobbed this bombshell.
“He’d play for us right now,” Smart said. “He’d have played for us last year on the Final Four team. He would’ve played 20 minutes on that team.”
I waited for Smart to crack a smile, to end the ruse. It sounds like I’ll be waiting a long time.
“That’s not an exaggeration,” he added.
Rhoades wasn’t really comfortable talking about the quality of his play. It’s not in his personality. But competitiveness and intensity are, and he freely admits that in practice, they keep score of everything.
“I’m not sure what my record is, but I know on the good side of it,” said Rhoades, who was invited to the Phoenix Suns summer camp in 1995 and played briefly in France.
What’s most important to Rhoades when he jumps into drills is what the players get from it. He says he doesn’t hold back because he wants what’s best for the team. If he were to give less than 100 percent, he’d be cheating the guys he’s often matched up with, point guards Darius Theus and Briante Weber, out valuable experience. In other words, Rhoades is not screwing around out there.
“When I’m on the court, I’m going to go at them because that’s only going to help them get better,” he said.
Theus enjoys going toe-to-toe with Rhoades, but more importantly, he sees the benefits of it.
“It’s amazing when you’ve got a coach who can play with you,” Theus said. “He’s so much more experienced than us. When you’ve got him out on the floor doing drills with you, you can learn from him. That’s just making us better.”
That experience is what separates him on the basketball court and what has made him so valuable on the sideline for VCU. After two seasons as an assistant on Smart’s staff, he was elevated to associate head coach over the summer.
More than 16 years ago, Rhoades drove a beat-up Ford Tempo with an odometer that read 230,000 miles and had no air conditioning from his hometown of Mahanoy City, Pa. to Ashland, Va. to start his college coaching career as an assistant at Randolph Macon. In 1999, he took over as head coach, a position he would hold through 10 seasons, 197 victories and four NCAA bids.
He’s the most experienced member of a VCU staff that includes the 34-year-old Smart, as well as Will Wade, Jamion Christian, Director of Operations Mike Morrell and Video Coordinator Donny Lind, who are all in their 20s.
“We were probably late [in promoting him] because ever since he’s been here, he’s been an unbelievable resource for me and the whole staff,” Smart said. “He’s someone who’s been a successful head coach for more than a decade. He’s a great resource for our players as well.”
It’s one of the reasons that Rhoades was able to seamlessly transition from the Rams’ primary offensive coach to defense this season, following the departure of Mike Jones to Radford. Rhoades volunteered for the switch because he felt it would give Christian an opportunity to learn VCU’s complicated offense.
The Rams have to be happy with the results. As of Jan. 18, the Rams ranked third in the CAA in points allowed per game (60.2). Additionally, the Rams pieced together a stretch against James Madison and Delaware this month in which they did not allow a field goal for nearly 17 consecutive minutes.
As long as VCU keeps shutting down opponents, Rhoades will keep suiting up in practice. He says his feet hurt and his back gets stiff sometimes, but it’s worth it. It feeds his competitive fire and it allows him to mold VCU’s talented guards at close range. He also hopes to dispel a few misconceptions.
“I had to score for my college team, but these guys think I’m a gunner,” said Rhoades, who also recorded more than 600 assists for Lebanon Valley. As a player growing up, you try to do this or that, but then you realize it’s about how your team does. You do whatever it takes to win.”
Even if that means guarding some kid who wouldn’t know how to turn on a VHS player to watch your highlight reel.