Kern: Neumann's Rullo enjoying hoops journey

SOMETIMES, maybe you just have to follow what your insides are telling you to do.

Even when that might not make much practical sense.

In 1999, Jim Rullo - the Drexel walk-on who earned a scholarship and five years earlier had been a senior on a team that made the NCAA Tournament - was working as a salesman making good money with a name company. Then he decided to become an assistant at Division III Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y.

Why ask why?

"It's that whole mentality of not wanting to look back and have any regrets," said Rullo, whose father Jerry was a member of the 1946-47 Philadelphia Warriors, who won the championship of the Basketball Association of America (which merged with the National Basketball League to form the NBA two years later). "My older brother (Jerry) was an athlete, but he went to Notre Dame and got his MBA at Georgetown. So who's the smarter of the two?

"I had reservations and doubts. But I wasn't married yet. I was going all in. On the way driving up, I pulled into a rest stop just south of Binghamton called Great Bend. As I'm checking out at the register, I saw this postcard that said, 'Sometimes you have to take the leap and build your wings on the way down.' I still have it.

"I figured if the worst thing that happened is I go on this journey and it doesn't work out, at least I found out."

He's now in his fourth season at D-III Neumann University in Aston, near the Delaware border. The 15th-ranked Knights are 20-2 after losing Wednesday night at Rosemont (12-10, 10-5) by one in overtime. They're trying to win the Colonial States Athletic Conference title for the second time in three years, which would get them into the NCAA field for the second time in three years. Before Rullo arrived, they'd never done either. Or had ever been in the Top 25.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

Rullo spent two seasons at Hobart and another in a restricted-earnings position at Drexel. Then his company hired him back. When the job at Malvern Prep, his high school, opened up, he opted to do that, too. For the next seven years. Won back-to-back Inter-Ac titles in 2011 and '12, the first time the Friars had done that in four decades.

Life was good. He'd married a former Drexel basketball player, and they had two young daughters. Rullo didn't know much about Neumann, other than he passed it every day on his drive from his South Jersey home to Malvern. But again, it turned out to be an opportunity he couldn't resist.

"My wife (Maureen) was very supportive," Rullo said. "Nothing is guaranteed. I had a vision and I was consistent with my philosophy. Everyone has their own journey. It was another challenge."

He's taken the program from 13-14 to 20-10 to 17-11 and 22-8 last season. The Knights have been in the CSAC final all three seasons. Two years ago, they lost at Mount Union in an NCAA opener by 28. "That's the next challenge," Rullo said. Last year, they won the ECAC South tourney, which is like that level's NIT.

Rullo's getting a lot of production from three seniors, including DeShawn Lowman, who just became the program's all-time leading scorer. They shoot 50 percent while holding opponents to 40, and average a dozen more rebounds.

"It's telling us we have the right guys taking the right shots," Rullo said. "We have a special group." Their other loss was out-of-conference on Jan. 9 at Rutgers-Camden, which is 5-18, also by one. "People ask me what happened," Rullo said. "They outplayed us, for whatever reason. I could make 1,001 excuses, but they were the better team . . .

"I don't know if it's a character flaw. But I hate losing more than I enjoy winning."

That passion is in his blood. An uncle played second base for the Athletics. Another boxed professionally. His mother (Eileen Rafferty) played on three Catholic League basketball champions for Hallahan High. When she became an official, Rullo went to games with her. "Me and my brother were the kids shooting it up between quarters," he recalled. His dad was in charge of running two different recreation centers for 30-some years. He knew everyone in the Philly basketball community. So his youngest son became a sponge.

"He was always trying to help kids who were a little underprivileged," Rullo said. "When he passed away (last October), a man came up to me with tears in his eyes telling me how my dad had given him sneakers, so he could play basketball. He had an impact on a lot of lives. And I saw that. I learned so much from being around him. I'd run into (Villanova great) Paul Arizin or (legendary Episcopal Academy coach) Dan Dougherty, guys like that, and we'd talk X's and O's. That's pretty cool."

He's also tight with Fran Dunphy, another Malvern alum/coach. Dunphy's mom and Rullo's dad grew up on the same block in South Philly.

"There's this whole web that's kind of out there," Rullo said. "It really is a small world. And we all become part of it here."

At Malvern, he sent seven players to Division I schools. All but one of them were walk-ons.

"When Bill (Herrion) took over at Drexel before my sophomore year, he had a team meeting where he said in no uncertain terms that he wasn't keeping walk-ons because he didn't see the value in having them," Rullo explained. "He gave me a week. A week turned into two. I was kind of able to do what I did. I could have gone Division III, but I would have always wondered. Bill will kid around and go, 'Don't forget where you came from. I made you.' I was fortunate. It would have been very easy to listen to the naysayers . . .

"I've had a chance to learn from the best. When you're coaching against Dan Dougherty or Speedy (Morris), you're coaching against icons. I know I'm measuring myself against the elite. My career was almost like a storybook. I've had experiences. I want these kids to have the same thing. They can last a lifetime. That's the stuff that's intoxicating."

Speaking of which, Rullo still laughs when he talks about his final college game, a 61-39 loss to Temple in an NCAA opener at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md.

"I was guarding Aaron (McKie), and in the first half he didn't score," Rullo said. "We had Mike Wisler, who was like one of those mush guys. When we're coming out after halftime, he comes up to me and goes, 'Keep doing what you're doing.' And I brought into it. Now we're in the layup line and I'm thinking, 'I'm done.' I think Aaron dropped 20 on me in the second half. He torched me. I think the first half was just him not shooting enough. There was nowhere to hide, man. And you're in front of 20,000. It was a CBS game, too . . .

"They had (Eddie) Jones and (Derrick) Battie and (William) Cunningham. Malik (Rose) is yelling for me to throw the ball to him (inside). I said, 'I can't see you.'

"But when I walked off, I'm looking across at my family and I'm like, 'It was always the kid from Grays Ferry dream to play in the NCAA Tournament.' So it was awesome. I'm sure I had visions of going out to, like, Wyoming. It's all about the memories."

He's traveled a circuitous road. Yet it's the one he chose. And there's everything to be said for that. It's been some education.

"At Drexel, we were always that other team," Rullo said. "It was the Big 5 plus Drexel. So you have to understand the landscape. We can still put our stamp on what we're doing. There's a lot of good teams in our area, at every level. Hey, you want to hang banners.

"If we want to separate ourselves, we have to realize what's in the details. That's what I was taught. You have to be on point or you'll get exposed. It's a blessing, and a curse. Any success we have is a byproduct of being at (the) 16th and Jackson (courts). The little things aren't the little things.

"There's a lot of excitement right now. At the same time, you have to stay humble. You have to respect the game, whether you're in Villanova or Aston. It's a responsibility. To be even a little piece of that . . . My dad used to sneak pretzels into the Palestra and use their mustard. That was big for him. It's all in the fabric of what we do."

Then you pass it along.

"You wonder about how universes collide, common threads," Rullo continued. "My girls (ages 10 and 8) come to the games and they're getting into it, talking X's and O's, how to read a screen, that kind of stuff. It's like the madness continues.

"But it's all good. My wife and I talk X's and O's, too."