By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
After the St. Augustine Prep basketball team beat Egg Harbor Township, 48-37, on Jan. 22, head coach Paul Rodio had a familiar look on his face. He wasn’t at all pleased that his Hermits were held to less than 50 points, and, more importantly, didn’t play as well as he expected them to every time they suit up in the navy blue and white. About 15 minutes after the game, however — and after a crowd of South Jersey high school sports reporters swarmed him in the visitors’ locker room, Rodio allowed himself to smile and enjoy the moment as he was swarmed by his young grandchildren.
This wasn’t just any win. It was the 900th of Rodio’s storied coaching career. He’s been such an influence on New Jersey high school basketball that his signature is on the court at St. Augustine — while he’s still coaching. And, he said he doesn’t have any plans to hang up the whistle anytime soon.
“The whole day, I’ve gotten phone call after phone call from former players, and the emotion has caught up to me. I didn’t think we played very well tonight, but it’s a long time and a lot of things — it’s my family, my coaches, it’s the school. I’ve been lucky. Anybody who does any profession for 41 years, anybody who is doing that, and is successful doing that, for that period of times deserves a lot of credit because it’s hard to do anything for 41 years. I think it’s great, the fact that I’ve been able to touch a lot of lives and impact a lot of kids positively — the fact that I’ve been able to do that is great. Winning a couple games along the way is the gravy part of it. It feels good, the phone calls I got today and the things that some of the people said over the years, all the things, the good, the bad, the indifferent, it’s exciting,” Rodio said following the win over the Eagles. “I have to give the credit to everybody. The school has been tremendous and has supported me since Day One. If you can get involved with a place that’s going to support you, it’s easier. I’ve got assistant coaches who are head coaches, and when you have that there’s enthusiasm in the gym. I’ve been lucky to be around great people and great situations.”
Cameron Bell — EHT’s second-year coach who also had the misfortune of being on the losing end of Atlantic City coach Gene Allen’s 300th win a year ago — said he never likes to lose, but that he also recognized what a historic achievement it is for a guy who went out of his way to welcome Bell into the Cape-Atlantic League’s coaching fraternity prior to Bell’s rookie season last year.
“Hats off to coach Rodio. Nine hundred wins is nine hundred wins — I don’t care where you are or where you coach, 900 wins is unbelievable. I honestly can’t (put it into perspective). I have 15 wins. Obviously, I didn’t want it to happen on our court, but much respect to him. He’s one of the most respected coaches,” Bell said. “When I got the job here, he was one of the first coaches to reach out to me. Coach Rodio reached out to me and brought me into the CAL family. And with 900 wins, you don’t need to do that for anybody, but it speaks to his character.
“He never gives up and his players are just like him. They never give up, they always stay in it,” Bell added. “They look to him for instruction, and they believe and listen to every word he says. He makes adjustments all the time. Whenever there is a timeout, I know they are going to make an adjustment, it’s just a question of what exactly it’s going to be. You never know with him.”
Rodio has been at the helm of his alma mater since the 1977-78 season, and has built one of the most well respected — and feared — boys basketball programs in the state. He’s just the third in state history to reach 900 wins, joining the legendary Bob Hurley, who won more than 1,100 games at St. Anthony, and Jerry Malloy, who notched 900 while coaching at schools such as St. Mary, St. Patrick and St. Michael’s.
“It’s been amazing. Nine hundred wins is a great achievement for him, and I’m glad to be a part of it. When it’s a day like today, you just want to play hard for coach Rodio and try to execute what he wants. We didn’t do that completely today, but we got a win and we got it done,” said current senior star forward Marlon Hargis. “He’s one of the best coaches in South Jersey history. He’s helped me develop as a player. I’m just happy to be on this team and be a part of this. On a daily basis, off the court he’s a cool guy, he’s funny, but when we’re in the locker room he may switch up and he’s not as nice sometimes. But he’s a great guy. He knows so much. He has 900 wins, so just to try to pick his brain every day — not even in basketball, just in life, to be able to learn from someone with so much experience is great.”
The season before Rodio took over at St. Augustine Prep, the Hermits were a dismal 2-20. Five years later, he guided St. Augustine to the first of five state championships. His resume also includes 14 South Jersey championships and 10 league titles, including the last three in a row. And Rodio hasn’t seen any significant dropoff in success in any of the four decades he’s been coaching. In the last eight seasons, including this year, as of Jan. 28, Rodio-coached teams are 184-25 — an incredible 159 games above .500 — and he’s averaged 22 wins per season throughout his career.
And, he’s still as passionate about the game as he was back in the days of short shorts and black Converse sneakers.
“If you do the math, it really boggles the mind. Nine hundred wins is a lot of wins. If you win 20 games a year for 20 years, you’re still 500 wins short. We were talking to EHT coach Cameron Bell about it, and he said he had 15 wins and couldn’t fathom getting to 900. To think you have to win 20 games a year for a generation — 20 years — and still be 500 short, I don’t think you’ll ever see, with the way the world is today, coaching years are like dog years, I don’t think you’ll ever see a guy like him again,” veteran sports reporter Mike McGarry — who has been covering Rodio-coached teams for nearly 30 years — said during a recent interview on 97.3 ESPN FM. “The people at St. Augustine and the South Jersey high school basketball community have to look at what he’s achieved and what he’s done, and as long as he’s out there coaching, continue to appreciate what he’s done because you’re never going to see the likes of him, or someone do what he’s done, again. Every time I say something like that, people say, ‘oh, well, he has good players.’ Every coach who has won that many games has good players. Bob Hurley of St. Anthony had good players, too. But, the key is — and I’ve watched a lot of sports in my life — not every coach wins with good players. Good players are part of it, but not every coach is able to get the most out of those good players. He’s able to get the most out of the players he’s had and put up a mind-boggling number of wins at St. Augustine. When I first started at The Press of Atlantic City in the early 1990s … there was one building. And you look now, and he’s a big reason why that school has been able to grow and really become an institution in South Jersey. What he does better than anybody is he gets players from different towns from all over the place to come together and buy in to a team philosophy, and sacrifice for each other and play for each other. And that’s not easy to do.”
“To be 41 years in and still have the same passion — I believe one of the quotes (in a story about him) was about him having the same relevancy and passion 41 years in, and that’s just an amazing testament to him,” Bell added.
Surprisingly, Rodio’s wife, Bonnie, and children Heather, Christi, Paul and Steven, say they want to see Rodio continue to coach. They’ve all sacrificed part of their lives in some way during the journey, but they see how influential coach is to the young men he guides.
“We’re very happy. He works very hard. He deserves this. He loves what he does, and he’s a fantastic coach,” Bonnie said after the win over EHT. “He has the passion, he loves people, and he teaches the kids about life. It’s not just about basketball. I hope he never retires. He’s happy, he loves what he does, and he impacts so many kids — and that’s what is important.”
“If my wife ever came to her senses one day and said, ‘what the hell is this guy doing? We haven’t gone Christmas shopping, we can’t go anywhere,’ because I’ve done this my whole life. And now it grows into we can’t go somewhere in the summer because I have summer league,” Rodio said. “So, it’s a lot of people who have helped me. It’s a lot of wins, I get it. I’m just glad to be able to have touched as many people’s lives and do what I’ve done.”
Rodio has endeared himself to his players, past and present, and even the school’s official student cheering section, dubbed “The Richland Rowdies”, who showed up in force at EHT complete with mini-face cutouts on sticks of coach Rodio that they held up throughout the game. It’s that spirit and passion that keeps Rodio, who is 65 years old, going strong every season. He’s a grinder, and he’ll continue to grind until he feels like he’s not being productive, he said.
“I don’t know any other way to do it. That’s the way I learned how to do it from when I was a little kid, and I’ve tried to become that kind of coach. You have to be you, and that’s me. As long as I can do that, that’s as long as I’ll coach. What I tell everybody is I’m definitely coaching next year, and the year after, as long as my health is alright,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those dinosaurs who is coaching just for the sake of coaching. I don’t have a year on it. If it’s three, if it’s five, if it’s two — I don’t know. Right now, I’m very happy with what I do. As long as I think I’m still getting to kids, and they still want me there, I’m going to do it. Right now, I feel very comfortable doing it. I don’t feel any different today than I did 10 or 12 years ago.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays