Paul Rodio became St. Augustine Prep’s basketball coach before the 1977-78 season.
He was 23.
“In those days, I was just trying to survive the next month,” Rodio said.
The coach has walked the Hermits’ sideline for 41 seasons. He is 65. Some of the players on his first team have recently retired from the work force.
Rodio still is going strong. His current team has a 10-2 record and is No. 6 in the Inquirer Top 25.
He has 898 career victories. With two more, he will become the first coach in South Jersey history, and just the third in state history, with 900 wins.
Sitting in his office, in front of a window that overlooks the court that bears his name, Rodio reflected on his long career and some of the changes in the sport.
Q: Can you believe it’s been 42 years?
A: If you had grabbed me in 1978 and said, ‘Somebody is going to be talking to you 42 years from now about still being in the business I would have said, ‘People don’t stay in that long.’ I was a kid. I didn’t know.
Q: Are your practices the same today as they were when you started?
A: Our practices are almost identical. The one change that we made, maybe five years ago, I thought the average kid doesn’t like to play against the pressure, the trapping, the running-and-jumping. Everybody was playing in the 40s, the 50s, and some teams still are and that’s fine, I’m not saying I’m right. But we were playing some good teams, CBA, St. Anthony’s, and they didn’t like when we started trapping them and running-and-jumping and changing the defense every time down, and our kids were buying into it. I mean, we played Don Bosco in the state championship game and won by 40 points. That doesn’t happen.
Q: How much has AAU and other outside influences changed your job?
A: I’m not going to lie. I don’t like AAU. It has its point and it does its thing, but it’s tough. If you ask me, I would rather it be like it was in 1985. In the olden days the ideas of playing outside — I’ll give you an example. I had a team in 1990, with Scotty Bittner, the coach at Stockton and Chris Carideo, the coach at Widener, and they would ask me when practice was going to be over, ‘We’ve got a game at the Jewish Community Center, a pickup game with a bunch of older guys.’ They would play every day. That was their idea of playing. So they would learn pick-and-roll. They would learn how to play. Now they’re leaving here to go play for the Long Island Roadrunners or whoever and they are going to play three games in an afternoon — colleges like it, they can see a lot of players. I know you need to do it, but it’s hard. They play the game a little different way than what we’re trying to do. I’m sure any high school coach will tell you, ‘It’s tough to fight against the AAU.’ So what I’ve tried to do is adapt and learn how to work with the AAU.
Q: Generally speaking, would you say the players you get now are more or less fundamentally sound than they used to be?
A: Compared to everybody else, I think I’m getting a kid that’s fundamentally sound for 2018. Comparing that kid to 1998, 1979, he’s not as fundamentally sound. I think they played the game a lot more then. No video games. There was no this, no that. They played. And when they played, you won or you were off the court. That was an era when kids played outside. If you lost, you didn’t get back on the court. Kids developed a whole different approach to the game. You had that mentality, ‘I’m not losing this spot to this kid.’ Play hard, play hard, play hard. Not as many kids going to a gym at 7:30 in the morning in the middle of June, saying, ‘I’m going to get my 1,000 shots.’ It’s not their fault. I say it all the time, ‘It’s not their fault.’ They’re growing up with a whole different scenario.
Q: How have you adjusted?
A: If you want to stay in the business, I tell my son [the coach at St. Joseph of Hammonton], figure out what the word ‘adapt’ means, go learn it, spend six months by yourself learning it again, and figure out how to adapt. Everything is different. Kids are different, parents are different, AAU is different, the game is different.
Q: How has the challenge of dealing with parents changed over the years?
A: In 1979 or 1985, if I had a phone call from Mr. So-and-So, wanting to talk to me about his son, the conversation would be more centered around, ‘Who is he having lunch with? Is he maturing? Do you see him OK to go to college?’ If I have a call today from a parent, it’s more, ‘He’s a better shooter on the right side, you have him on the left side. He’s not a straight jump shooter, he has to come off a dribble. Why don’t you run stuff for him? He’s the first kid out.’ And the truth is, most of my parents are not like that. Most of my parents are OK. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it 40 years and they’re not going to bust my chops as much. So I don’t have it as much. But believe me, we all have it.
Q: How do you think the relationship between the publics and non-publics has changed over the years?
A: I actually think the playing field is more level now than it ever was. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, if you were good in Haddon Heights, you were going to go to Paul VI or Eustace. In 2018, there’s no need to go to St. Augustine. You see as many kids going to public schools. Choice schools, great education, what’s the difference? I see the playing field as more even. But the animosity is still there. And we don’t have it as bad as [North Jersey non-publics] Don Bosco, Bergen Catholic.
Q: Is it harder for you to attract kids to come here and play for you than it used to be?
A: No. Bobby Hurley told me and I don’t want to drop names but he told me years ago, ‘You’ll know your program is doing well when you don’t have to go running around and chasing kids down. They’re calling you. They’re coming to you.’ And I’m not saying we’re there but we’re close to that. I don’t find it any more difficult than it was 20 years ago. It’s very similar. You can’t come in my office without finding a bunch of eighth-grade schedules. I might not go. I might send you as my guy and you might come back and say, ‘Whew, you have to go see this kid.’ And then I’ll go. For me, that part has been a little easier the last 10 years.
Q: How has your relationship with the officials changed?
A: My relationship with the officials is better now than it ever was. It’s 40 years. I don’t yell and scream like I used to. I’ve grown to the point where one call is not going to change my life. I was a major hothead. Way out of control. But I was young. I believed that Jan. 13, Monday night game against Oakcrest is the end of the world.
Q: What would you say you enjoy most about coaching?
A: Without doubt, the preparation, the practice, the getting ready, the summer. All that more than games. The game is secondary anymore. It really is. I know it sounds goofy. My goal is to become a better team at 6:30 than we are at 3:30. I enjoy the workouts. I enjoy coming in here in June. I come in with [junior Charles] Solomon, say I’ll meet you at 9, work out for an hour, go lift and go to work. I enjoy that more than getting involved in the game.
Q: What do you wish you didn’t have to deal with?
A: It would be AAU. Without even thinking twice, it would be AAU. I don’t like the fact that they’re getting everything for nothing. I don’t like the fact that they’re getting on airplanes and staying in hotels. I don’t know who is paying for any of that stuff. I don’t like the fact that my kid is exposed to all this and then looks at me like I got one eye in the middle of my forehead because I tell him he’s got to pay for a pair of socks or sneakers. There are so many aspects of it that are in 2018 difficult to deal with. If you told me tomorrow morning, there’s no more AAU, it’s back to the way it was, I would be a happy guy.
Q: What keeps you going?
A: It’s definitely the kids. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going. I’m 65. I don’t want to be one of those guys who is hanging on because he’s supposed to coach. I get up every morning, my palms are sweaty for practice. I’m still into it. That’s me. It’s the kids. It’s watching this young group now, get better. To see that I’ve gotten to them a little bit. This kid doesn’t make that stupid one-hand pass anymore. He’s coming off the pick the right way. He’s getting the pick on the top foot. All that keeps me going. I’ve enjoyed it from the first day. I don’t look it at like work. I don’t have a date [when he’ll retire]; I’d just rather go a day too early than a day too late.
Q: How much longer?
A: I got married 42 years ago, I’ve been here 42 years and Bonnie [his wife] has been at Children’s Hospital for 42 years. So not a lot has changed in my life. I want to leave the program in good shape. I’ll know what it’s time. I know I’m not going 15 more years. I know for sure I’m going now and next year and let God take care of the rest.