All Rhodes led him to Concordia
Rodrick Rhodes stands out in a crowd, which isn't a bad thing when you're a college basketball coach.
The first-year coach of NCAA Division II Concordia's men's team fills out his 6-6 frame nicely. He exuded personality and charm as he greeted members of the George Fox coaching staff on a recent night at Concordia's gym, spending extra time exchanging pleasantries with one with a physical disability.
Rhodes, 46, was all smiles afterward, too, after the Cavaliers' 88-69 victory over their Division III opponent in what is counted as an exhibition.
It's not been like that often this season. Concordia's record was 1-9, including 0-2 in Great Northwest Athletic Conference play, going into a Dec. 31 game at Western Oregon. No way, however, was the coach going to let that get his spirits down.
"This is not the start we expected," Rhodes said as he sank into a chair in his office beneath LCEF Court. "But I tell the guys all the time, I really believe we're the best 1-9 team in the country. I'm super happy with these kids. They've given me everything thus far."
Despite the record, the folks at Concordia seem happy with the hiring of Rhodes, once a star swing man under Rick Pitino at Kentucky, good enough to have played in 72 NBA games from 1997-2000.
"It's been awesome to have him as coach," 6-4 junior Hunter Sweet said. "He has a great basketball mind, is a great guy and role model. He is always preaching to treat others the way you'd like to be treated. I think this program is in pretty good hands with Coach Rhodes."
Rhodes was hired in May by then-Concordia athletic director Lauren Eads. Rhodes replaced Brad Barbarick, whose tenure ended after 25 seasons. The 2018-19 Cavaliers were 11-17 record and ninth out of 11 teams in the GNAC. Barbarick's teams were 37-74 in four years at the D-II level.
Shortly after the Rhodes hire, Eads moved to Germany and, in December, Matt Martin was hired as her replacement.
"I've met with all of our coaches," Martin said. "I've been really impressed with all of them, but Rodrick in particular. It was quickly evident how passionate he is and how impactful he has been for his student-athletes.
"They're not where they want to be from a record standpoint, but this is as bought-in a 1-9 team as you'll find anywhere. That speaks to the culture he is building."
Rhodes came to Concordia after two years as an assistant coach at Northwest Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho. Prior to that, he spent five years as head coach at tiny Cordia School in Hazard, Kentucky, a stint filled with controversy.
After his third year, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association handed down sanctions against Cordia and Rhodes amid allegations of illegal transfers, financial aid, recruitment and other improprieties.
"This series of events may well represent the most wanton and blatant disregard for association rules in its 97-year history," KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said at the time.
Rhodes stayed on as coach, and at the end of the 2015-16 season the Lions won the "All A Classic" state tournament for small schools. After that season, however, his contract was not renewed.
When he departed Hazard in 2017, Rhodes left behind a variety of opinions about the ethics and values displayed during his time there. To some, he was a coach who broke rules and got the school penalized for it. To others, he was a folk hero. A 10-part documentary by Uproxx titled "Us Against the World," covers the Rhodes saga as it follows Cordia's season the year after his coaching stint ended.
Rhodes grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. His mother died when he was 6. His father was "very present" in his life, he said, but Rodrick was raised by his older sister, Gail Adams. He said he gets his positive attitude from her.
"She taught me to think of others before you think of yourself," he said.
Rhodes played his high school ball under legendary coach Bob Hurley, father of Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley.
"I was blessed by the basketball gods," Rhodes said. "My high school coach is in the Hall of Fame. Rick Pitino is in the Hall of Fame. My coach at USC, Henry Bibby, is not a Hall of Fame coach, but he played for arguably the best coach of all-time in any sport (John Wooden). My fourth coach was Rudy Tomjanovich, a Hall of Fame coach (with the Houston Rockets). I've been able to pick up some really good knowledge of the game of basketball."
Rhodes had a standout career at Kentucky, averaging 9.1 points off the bench as a freshman, then starting the next two seasons. During his time there, the Wildcats went 85-16 and reached the Final Four his freshman year, the rookie playing with the likes of Jamal Mashburn and Tony Delk.
"Great coach, great motivator," Rhodes said of Pitino. "What I learned from Coach Pitino is you're never out of a game. He did a phenomenal job of making you believe you're better than what you are. That was his greatest gift. That's what I try to give to these kids (at Concordia). I want them to believe in themselves. I want them to play free out there."
When Pitino asked him to redshirt his senior year — the Wildcats had several prize freshmen coming in — Rhodes balked and wound up at USC. He sat out a season and then was the Trojans' No. 2 scorer in 1996-97 on a team that went 17-11, tied for second in the Pac-10 and made the NCAA Tournament.
Rhodes was the 24th pick by Houston in the 1997 NBA draft, but lasted only parts of three seasons in the league. He played internationally and in the U.S. Basketball League from 2000-05, then served as an assistant coach at five universities from 2005-11, including Seton Hall and Massachusetts.
Then Rhodes made the surprising decision to coach in the high school ranks, and at a very small school at that. Cordia, with an enrollment of under 250, is located near Hazard, population 5,000, in eastern Kentucky.
"I wanted to be a head coach, and I thought it would be extremely difficult for me to break ranks as a head coach at the collegiate level," Rhodes said. "I knew I had to prove myself as a head coach.
"Kentucky was the perfect fit for me. I knew they would appreciate me as far as their love and passion for the game. Kentucky is known for its basketball. It checked a lot of boxes. If I went down there and did a good job, it would help spring me into my next job."
Rhodes also took inspiration from Hurley, his high school coach.
"In the sense of taking kids out of tough situations, giving them tough love and surrounding them with love," Rhodes said. "That's what Coach Hurley did for our group of inner-city kids. He gave us a bunch of love. I appreciate him for that. He changed my life. He is part of the reason why I wanted to get into coaching. I saw the impact he had on me as a young kid."
But did Rhodes — a former NBA player who had coached in the college ranks for six seasons — ever think he was too big for Cordia?
"Oh, no," he said. "I'm extremely humble. I don't ever think like that. I appreciate every opportunity."
The person responsible for bringing Rhodes to Cordia was Alice Whitaker, executive director of the Lotts Creek Community School. Three and a half years after Rhodes coached his last game there, Whitaker remains in his corner.
"Rod did a great job," she said. "This is a very white community, and he was accepted by most everyone. He did so much to bring diversity into the community. He made a huge difference in that alone, not to say how great it was to be state champions.
"He has strong character, and he instilled that in the kids, too. If they misbehaved, he had them running hills at 4 in the morning. It was a different atmosphere than we'd had before, a great atmosphere I was so happy to have. We tried to go charter with the school, and that was blocked. If we'd gone charter, he'd still be with us. I think he was happy here."
Rhodes did not make much money at his coaching job, but was given free housing on the Cordia campus and primarily made his living with a job working with an after-school program associated with the school.
Cordia is a public school, but the Knott County Board of Education operates it within the private Lotts Creek Community School — a joint public/private venture. It's a boarding school with dormitories, yet it competes athletically against the other schools in the state governed by the KHSAA.
Rhodes had connections to people throughout the country, in particular in the New York/New Jersey area. He brought in several boys to attend school and play basketball each year at Cordia.
"They are considered residents, so they don't have to pay tuition," Whitaker said. "They live in the dorms. We find legal guardians for them. We had some Canadians that I paid tuition for, but not for American-based students. These are at-risk kids who come in and benefit from opportunities they wouldn't have had at home."
Cordia has always had its transfer program in place, "but we'd never reached to out-of-state kids before Rodrick got here," Whitaker said. "That was not something every school had readily available to them. That was part of their complaints."
"Bringing those kids in to help them is part of my mission," Whitaker said. "You look at the record of the kids brought in — we had no problems with them, and they thrived in school. They came out of the 'hood, they survived, and many of them get (college) scholarships. I'm continuing that, but I miss having the influence of Rodrick in all kinds of ways. He became almost a son to me."
In the documentary, Rhodes said the student-athletes were brought in for several reasons, including helping them get out of the inner city and putting them in position have a better adult life.
"I'm from the same (kind of) neighborhood these kids are from," he said. "I understand their struggle. We're coaching them up. We're teaching them discipline. We're teaching them about life. We're giving them structure."
And a basketball team to play for. Rhodes' first team went 7-16. In his third season, the Lions were 20-9 and one of the better teams in the state. By that time, complaints from representatives of opposing schools were beginning to reach the KHSAA.
"Cordia is a basketball factory, they're not a high school," said "All A Classic" director Stan Steidel in the documentary. "It's unfair to the other kids. That's the main thing I object to."
"The gripe is, they're bringing these kids in just for basketball," said Ron Dawn, Newport Central Catholic's principal. "It does not appear they're following the same rules as everyone else."
The KHSAA took the accusations seriously. In July 2014, the organization announced the sanctions, including suspension of the entire 2014-15 season and the 2015-16 postseason, forfeiture of all victories during the 2013-14 season, probation through the 2018-19 season and a fine of nearly $26,000 for the accumulation of infractions.
Cordia appealed and got some of the punishments removed or lessened. With Rhodes staying on as coach, the Lions played an appreviated schedule in 2014-15 and were allowed to play in the 2015-16 postseason, in which they won the state's "All A Classic."
"I had hired an attorney to fight the whole thing," Whitaker said. "Without question, we were going to win. I offered to continue to pay attorney's fees. It meant that much to stop it. But we needed the Knott County Board of Education to be part of the lawsuit, and they voted no. They voted to pay the $26,000 fine rather than continue."
Kim King, superintendent of Knott County Schools, did not return several phone messages from the Portland Tribune.
During the process, Rhodes said he had ample communication with KHSAA head Tackett, who considered Cordia's violations aggredious.
"I love Mr. Tackett," Rhodes said. "I have a great deal of respect for him. We're all entitled to our opinions. That's his opinion, and that's all that is."
Five years after the fact, Tackett's opinion remains the same.
"Make sure you understand, Rodrick may or not have been the controlling factor (in the transgressions)," Tackett said. "It was at that point, and still remains, one of the few times we had a school that didn't really care about rules. It was a mess. The sanctions matched that."
Tackett said the KHSAA now requires a student to sit out a year after a transfer before being eligible to play interscholastic sports.
"Since Rodrick left, (Cordia) has had a few kids do that," he said.
"This was a case where the matriarch of the school (Whitaker), come hell or high water, she was going to do what she wanted to," Tackett said. "I always thought Rodrick was in a position where he was dependent upon her for his livelihood. He was young in terms of being in charge and maybe didn't handle it like he would today. He was led around a lot by Miss Whitaker."
Rhodes doesn't sound as if he would handle it differently today. Does he believe he broke any rules during his tenure at Cordia?
"No, absolutely not," he said.
Plenty of others at Cordia feel the same way.
Joel Melton is Cordia's baseball coach and was on the committee to help hire a basketball coach when Rhodes came on in 2011.
"Coach Rhodes did a tremendous job," Melton said. "You couldn't have expected anything more. He brought a lot of excitement to the program.
"We're the smallest public high school in Kentucky. Several big schools around us weren't happy with us having the success we were having under Coach Rhodes. There were a lot of allegations that were incorrect. There were documents falsified within our own school to try to make him look guilty. Our administration was working against us. They did not want him to succeed."
Melton said Rhodes had been suspended one game his first season at Cordia and was thrown out of his final game the last season.
"But to me, (Rhodes' termination) was unjust," Melton said. "Rod is a great guy. What he did for this community will not be forgotten. We are forever grateful."
Joel's mother, Donna Melton, is a former librarian who also did counseling work at Cordia. She served as guardian for a couple of the out-of-state students brought in during the Rhodes regime.
"I was probably as close to him as anybody here," she said. "He's a very personable person. He was dedicated to the boys, to the job that he did here. I don't know how he'll do with college kids, but he was really good with the boys here. They knew what he expected, and they did it. That's why he was successful. Rod didn't know how long he'd stay, but he wanted to build a program. It was five years of a wonderful ride for all of us."
Like Whitaker, Donna Melton emphasized how well Rhodes and the players assimilated into the culture at Cordia.
"Rod is black, and most of the kids he brought in were black, and there aren't many blacks in the community," she said. "Rod truly didn't know what he was coming into, but it was a wonderful relationship. He was totally accepted, and everybody in the community loved those boys. They're from the 'hood, but that wasn't the way they behaved down here. It was a cultural shock for them probably more than it was for us.
"Rod didn't have to recruit. His name in New Jersey got a lot of publicity and he had a lot of friends there. He had people calling him all the time, asking, 'Can we send our son down there to you?' They saw it as a way to get their kids out of a bad situation."
Even so, coaches from competing schools took umbrage with the way Rhodes was operating.
"There was a lot of jealousy in that," said Randy Thompson, manager of WKCB radio in Hindman, Kentucky, the station that broadcast the Lions' games. "He was defeating them with players who were coming in here from other states. They weren't five-star athletes, but they were pretty good.
"I'm not naive to the fact that he wanted to win championships and build a good program, but he wanted to be the Bob Hurley of eastern Kentucky. He was trying to help kids and bring them to a safer place and give them opportunities they might not have had in other areas."
Even after the Lions won the "All A Classic" to end the 2015-16 season, Rhodes' contract was not renewed.
"It was a hatchet job," Donna Melton said. "It was because he was black and beating bigger schools he wasn't supposed to beat. It was a fun ride, but it was a hard one."
There was another opinion about Rhodes, however, one shared by at least some members of the Knott County Board of Education, who voted not to renew the coach's contract.
Cavanaugh Trent, the athletic director for the county schools, said he dealt with Rhodes often.
"As far as a personal relationship, we got along," Trent said. "We butted heads like any AD and coach, but for the most part, we got along."
Among the reasons given by the board for Rhodes' termination were "insubordination" and "his inability to maintain a satisfactory working relationship with the principal." That man was Jonathan Mullins.
"I didn't hire or fire (Rhodes)," said Mullins, now director of special education and preschool at the Knott County Schools Board. "But our relationship was strained. (Cordia) got put on probation. The fact is, we couldn't get on the same page in what we wanted to do as far as following the rules. The superintendent gave opportunity for him to do a lot of correction after the initial probation, but it didn't change."
After his dismissal, Rhodes stayed around town for another year, attending games and sitting in the stands during the Lions' 2016-17 season as his former assistant, Josh Hurt, coached the team. The documentary detailed his involvement from a distance.
"Leadership doesn't always have to be from the front," Rhodes said. "It can be from behind. I'm a servant leader. I didn't need to be up front to lead. I can be in the background and still contribute and not have the spotlight on me."
Rhodes stayed connected to the program, though. In the documentary, he is shown giving a pep talk to the players before the "All A Class" tournament, referencing the sanctions. "Use it as fuel, because they hated on you," he implored. "Don't let it get in your heads."
Rhodes spent the following two years coaching at Northwest Nazarene before moving on to Concordia. In neither case did anyone contact Mullins as a reference about Rhodes' credentials.
"I don't know what colleges are looking for, but it surprises me that since all that happened, no college or anybody else reached out to me," Mullins said. "I was never contacted by anybody."
In an email from Germany, Eads answered questions about Rhodes' hiring at Concordia, a university with an enrollment of 5,500 located in Northeast Portland.
"We had a pool of very qualified candidates last spring," she said. "Coach Rhodes quickly moved to the top of the list and continued to show throughout the process why he was the right person to head our program. His philosophy of basing his program on love set him apart from the other candidates and meshed perfectly with the Christian mission of Concordia."
Rhodes doesn't attend church, but said he is a Baptist. During the interview, he displayed a Bible and a book about televangelist Joel Osteen that were on his desk.
"I'm constantly in prayer and (reading) Scripture," he said.
Was Eads aware of Rhodes' issues at Cordia?
"As with all of our hiring searches, we did our due diligence regarding all viable candidates, including Coach Rhodes," she responded.
During the interview process at Northwest Nazarene or Concordia, did the situation at Cordia come up?
"I just talked to them and let them see who I am," Rhodes said. "It's not hard to see and feel my energy, to know me as a person. They could tell right away that this guy is a good guy. Anybody who knows me will tell you that. I could be wrong, but most people who meet me say, 'I can't believe how humble this guy is, and how real he is.'"
Martin said he has no concerns about Rhodes' involvement in the Cordia situation.
"In the conversations we've had, he has been great," the Concordia AD said. "He has been open and transparent. The biggest thing he stresses is his love for the kids. I believe he cares deeply about our student-athletes, which is what you want."
Whitaker said Rhodes — who finished with a 76-51 record in his five years at Cordia — maintains an upstanding reputation in that community.
"I can't tell you how many people have come up and said it would be nice if Rodrick were still here," she said. "He is terribly missed.""
Rhodes patiently answered a number of questions about his time at Cordia. When the subject of recruiting was raised, he'd had enough.
"I'm so removed from all of that now," he said. "That's so behind me. That was a part of my past to get to where I'm at. I really don't want to continue to talk about that. I just want to focus on these kids that we have here and being the best servant leader I can be at this university."
Rhodes is a glass-half-full kind of coach. That was obvious from his courtside demeanor against George Fox. He held an even temperament throughout the ups and downs of the game.
"We preach being positive," he said. "We never tell a guy it's a bad shot. We say 'good' vs. 'great.' We consider a good shot what most people consider a bad shot. A great shot is a wide-open shot."
The players all wear "love" on their warmup tops. It's a common theme in Rhodes' program.
"If you know me, you know my heart," he said. "Ask any of the kids. Before every game, I hug every single one of my kids and tell them I love them. I love helping people. It's my job to give back. It's my mission, because somebody did it for me. If somebody didn't help me out, I wouldn't be in the position I'm in. It's only right that I pay it forward."
Concordia's players have become accustomed to the "love" theme.
"At first, we didn't understand what he was trying to get at with it," Sweet said. "As the season has gone on and we've been around each other, he is preaching this team is like a family. Now everyone is bought into the whole 'love' aspect and treating teammates like family."
Rhodes has big plans for the Concordia program, all tied to recruiting, which is perfectly legal at the college level.
"My kids are gritty," he said. "They're playing hard. But when we play against other Division II schools, you can see the difference in size and athleticism. We inherited a bunch of really good human beings and good players, but we have to add some pieces to become a special team.
"I think Concordia can be a powerhouse. The Portland area has a lot of talent. Kids want to stay to play college ball here. We have to go out and recruit them and win some games. We can turn this program into a national powerhouse. We have good players, but we have to find better players to help us get over the top."
Rhodes' goals for the program extend beyond wins and losses, he said.
"My first goal is to raise young men to be men, to become servant leaders in their community," he said. "If you're not going to a Division I school in the Northwest, you should think about coming to Concordia. We will do it the right way, and people will respect how we go about our business. I've always been a classy guy. I've always done things the right way. I don't believe in cheating. I don't believe in misleading people."
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