Tragedy transformed Rice men’s basketball coach Mike Rhoades

The dividing line between who Mike Rhoades was and who he is came on Oct. 18, 2008.

It was the day Rice men’s basketball coach lost his dad but found himself. The day his profession took a back seat to his personal life.

Doesn’t mean he’s any less determined to turn the Owls, a team that has enjoyed one winning season in the last 10, into a winner. And it doesn’t mean that he is not deeply affected by the five-game losing streak that leaves them 5-11 heading into a home game against Western Kentucky Thursday on ASN.

It just means that the second-year boss won’t allow his discontent to seep out of his office, that he will not let the gloom envelop his players, much less his wife and three kids.

“In the past I was a guy that wore it on my sleeve and took it home with me,” he said. “I’m completely different.”

His dad, Jim, died from injuries suffered in an auto accident with a drunk driver on that October day in Rhoades’ native Pennsylvania. The elder Rhoades had been a state senator for 28 years, and before that a teacher and coach. As his son grew up in Mahanoy City, in the heart of the Coal Region, Jim always emphasized that Mike should be a competitor on the court and a gentleman off it, and he tried to always heed that advice.

The younger Rhoades, a guard, was a great high school player, and just as great at Division III Lebanon Valley College in central Pennsylvania, twice earning All-America honors and leading the Dutchmen to an NCAA title in 1993-94. He leapt into coaching immediately after graduation, first at Randolph-Macon as an assistant, then as that school’s head coach, succeeding longtime boss Hal Nunnally in 1999, at the age of 25.

Jim died on the eve of Mike’s 10th and final season with the Yellow Jackets, and it caused the younger Rhoades to reexamine himself.

“I don’t know what people call it — an epiphany or whatever it is,” he said. “Sometimes things in your life happen that make you look at things differently. That (tragedy) has changed a lot of my perspective on a lot of things. … I became much, much more positive — much, much more upbeat. I didn’t want to be a drain on our players. I think I was at Randolph-Macon.”

He was successful there, going 197-76 and making four appearances in the NCAA Division III Tournament. But, he said, “I think I probably kept our guys from winning a couple more championships, because I was so draining and so hard on them.”

He was demanding in five years as an assistant under Shaka Smart at VCU, and remains so now — “but in a different way,” he said.

He still asks a lot of his guys, but doesn’t run them into the ground, doesn’t dwell on their shortcomings. He corrects them, and moves on. Rhoades has taken the long view, believing that over time he can build Rice into a viable program.

“You hear that cliché: ‘Why not? Why not us?’ ” he said. “Just to build it from the foundation up and put my stamp on it, I always thought like that.”

Rhoades went 12-20 in his first season, and on the eve of this one lost guards Marcus Jackson and Chad Lott — the team’s top returning scorer and a promising freshman, respectively — for the duration to knee injuries. Backup center Nate Pollard also left the program in midstream with the intention of transferring, leaving the Owls with eight scholarship players.

Freshman guard Marcus Evans (19.9) and redshirt sophomore swingman Egor Koulechov (17.8), an Arizona State transfer, have carried the offensive load, but the Owls are allowing opponents to shoot a healthy 48% from the floor (41.2% from 3-point range) and score 79.5 points a night.

“We have all these young guys,” Rhoades said, “so we’re really struggling defensively to stop people, getting consecutive stops and so forth. … We’ve just got to get stops.”

He will continue to emphasize that, but he won’t let it eat him up. Same for any other basketball-related matter.

It’s just not worth it. He knows that better than most.

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