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‘Who Wouldn’t Want To Be Here?’: Mike Rhoades Prepped To Bring Stability, Native Edge To Penn State Hoops

Despite reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years after a 19-12 regular-season slate, Penn State men’s basketball’s first semblance of program stability came to a crashing halt last Friday after former head coach Micah Shrewsberry officially left the program for the same role at Notre Dame.

After the Nittany Lions appeared to be in their most cohesive spot toward building a stable future with Shrewsberry at the helm, his quick departure ultimately left Penn State hoops in an all too familiar spot. 

Suddenly, Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Pat Kraft underwent the unit’s second head coaching search within the last three seasons, leaving the Nittany Lions bound to find their fourth leader at the helm since 2020. 

However, following a chaotic, week-long search, Kraft landed on VCU’s former leader in Mike Rhoades to head Penn State under a seven-year contract that will likely keep the newly-inked hire in Happy Valley for the foreseeable future. To avoid recent trends of insecurity at the position, Kraft’s main criteria was to find a candidate who wanted to call Central Pennsylvania home and build a culture from the ground up.

“We started on this search, and we embarked to find a coach who wanted to be at Penn State,” Kraft said during Rhoades’ introductory press conference Wednesday afternoon. “We wanted someone that had the same confidence [and] the same chip on their shoulder that we all have as an organization. We wanted someone who knew how special Penn State was but also loves to compete.”

Evidently, Rhoades’ mentality appeared to coincide with exactly that from the time Kraft picked up the phone, to the instant his hiring became official on Tuesday afternoon. 

Rhoades, a Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania native, breathes the Keystone State, despite spending the majority of his coaching career with VCU in Central Virginia. In college, the one-time shooting guard helped morph in-state Lebanon Valley College into a powerhouse at the Division III level, resulting in a national championship in 1994. 

In his pursuit of hardwood dominance, Rhoades garnered All-American honors twice, and still holds the program’s all-time assists and steals records. Better yet, his No. 5 jersey hangs in the rafters at his alma mater. 

But, being a Pennsylvania product through-in-through, Rhoades understands the values of Penn State and what its success has the ability to mean to the state in general. While leaving VCU, a program where he captured three NCAA Tournament berths in six campaigns, wound up being a difficult choice, his personal connections and family ties to Happy Valley proved to be an opportunity he simply couldn’t turn down. 

“We’re putting it all on the table so everybody knows what we’re doing and the commitment,” Rhoades said. “But, I will say this — it’s Penn State. I’ve known Penn State since I was born. My dad used to drive us up here for a lot of different things, and I’ve seen games in Rec Hall. I went to basketball camps here. My sister went here, my mother went here, my dad went to graduate school here.”

While Rhoades has a tall order in front of him with just three scholarship commodities left on Shrewsberry’s former roster, the new head man is committed to constructing a new-found system that’s “built to last”. His seven-year, $25.9 million dollar deal begins with a $15 million buyout within his first go-around. 

His escape avenues remain limited moving forward, boasting $12, $9, and $6 million buyout figures for his second, third, and fourth years at the helm, respectively. However, the mentor didn’t sign with Kraft and President Neeli Bendapudi’s administration with the intent to jump ship for grander pastures. 

Instead, as a Pennsylvania guy, Rhoades sees Penn State for what it is. And now, he’s beginning to view the program for what it has to opportunity to become under his tutelage. 

“It’s a cool place,” Rhoades said. “Who wouldn’t want to be here? And then you get to coach basketball here. I mean, I’m going to wake up tomorrow and be the head coach of Penn State every day and coach basketball and help young people receive their dreams. Are you crazy, why not? And why not now?”

Aside from bringing Jamal Brunt, J.D. Byers, Brent Scott, and Jimmy Martelli to State College from Richmond to backfill vacant assistant coaching roles on his newly assembled staff, Rhoades elected to bring on a familiar face to the region in an effort to spark a larger recruiting edge. 

Following a seven-year head coaching run at Rowan College within the Division III ranks, Rhoades hired former Penn State guard Joe Crispin on his new staff in Happy Valley. 

As a four-year starter and former captain, Crispin left Penn State as the program’s career leader in minutes logged and still resides as the team’s third-highest-ever scorer. While Crispin’s native ties should naturally boost the Nittany Lions’ pitch on the recruiting trail, his offensive ingenuity should go hand-in-hand with Rhoades’ defense-first mindset. 

Last season, VCU ranked No. 15 in total defense, according to KenPom’s metrics, while residing at 145th on the offensive front. However, in 2021, Crispin’s attack produced 92.6 points per game in a run-and-gun-styled intrusion, led by his reliance on gunning quick looks from the perimeter. 

“There’s no doubt about it, [Crispin’s] pride in Penn State is something else, and he loves this place,” Rhoades said. “Beyond that, Joe knows basketball. He was a pro, he is a successful college coach. He and I have talked [about] basketball, and we see the game similarly, and how we want to do things. Him bleeding on this court, and him sweating on this court adds to it.”

Toward the end of his introductory press conference, Rhoades mentioned that “he owes it to the program” to instantly hop on the recruiting trail and start climbing the steep hill of his roster management conundrum ahead of his initial go-around. 

But, if all goes as planned for the first-year mentor, the Nittany Lions should have high school and prospective transfer prospects alike chomping at the bit to perform at Rhoades’ standard in the blue and white.

His commitment to manufacturing a “bold, different, and aggressive” mold at Penn State will start with keeping the likes of Kebba Njie, Kanye Clary, and transfer entrants Evan Mahaffey and Jameel Brown intact while gaining the pledges of several fresh faces. 

Ultimately, Rhoades believes that his brand of hoops and overarching vision for what Penn State basketball will come could prove to sell itself in the long term.

“We’re going to build this, and I’m committed to building this to last and to make it so successful that everybody wants to come here,” he said. “Not just to play basketball, but to watch us play and be a part of it.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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