News & Features » Miscellany

Part 2

Old School

by

comment
Coach Rutledge moves through the 89-year-old all boys' high school with soft, steady, belonging steps. More than 100 basketball-trophies fill the double-tiered case that runs half the length of the hallway, and Rutledge has lifted every one of them. These prizes measure winnings — tournaments and championships — and boys dream to possess them. Still, they do little to measure the weight of Rutledge's contribution.

In the open hallway of the school, rebuilt from a fire in 1986, Rutledge examines the class photos of Cadets which span decades. His finger scrolls the glass as he identifies his players with ease, noting their particular skills, who went on to play at which colleges, what they're doing today.

Rutledge came to Benedictine High School, an all-boys' Catholic military school on Sheppard Street, in 1957 after graduating from the College of William and Mary. "Being from Connecticut, I explored some other opportunities, like my old high school. But my wife was here and I felt Richmond was a good place to live and raise a family," says Rutledge. And now, he adds, "I would never consider going to another high school."

Surprisingly, it wasn't a basketball coaching job that lured Rutledge to Benedictine. Rutledge, a William and Mary Hall of Famer who played football, basketball and baseball, had a favorite sport — and it was baseball. What's more, he had been a pitcher for the Richmond Virginians, the professional baseball club that played at the old Parker Field.

But after two years with the Virginians, Rutledge injured his shoulder, snuffing his chances for a career in the major leagues. "I was very disappointed when my shoulder went bad," says Rutledge. The blow struck out dreams of pennants and fame but grounded him in a role he never expected. "Everybody dreams a little bit that one day he'll make it to the big league. ... I had aspirations of playing in the majors. But that passed. I haven't had the same aspirations as a coach as I would have had as a player."

At 25, Rutledge, a rookie athletic director at Benedictine, found that coaching baseball was the next best thing to hurling 90-mph pitches over the plate. He would spend the next 32 years coaching baseball — 18 as head coach; and 14 as pitching coach.

Still, Rutledge is best known as a mentor to the 516 varsity basketball players he's coached in his 43-year tenure. "I think all young coaches try to emulate a mentor, and for me, that was John Wooden at UCLA and Dean Smith at Carolina. I think the thing both of them had was team-building and the ability to win national championships with different types of talent — they always blended those different kinds of talent into a team philosophy," Rutledge explains. "I guess if we have a philosophy, it's that a good offense begins with a good defense."

The coach's philosophy has won him tons of respect from legions of admirers. "People ask me what motivated me, and there's no question, it was Coach Rutledge," says Kuester, the Sixers' assistant coach, whose impressive career as point guard began in 1970 with Rutledge at Benedictine.

"Coach Rutledge maximizes a player," says Kuester, extolling Rutledge's trademark hard-line drills. "My freshman year he ran us so hard I had to quit." The agony was a moment of reckoning for Kuester. He knew then that the only way he could make it in basketball would be if he pushed himself to get in the best physical and mental shape possible. So he stole away to the school's gym when no one else was around, and he practiced.

"He really kicked my butt and kicked it hard. Everybody hated the first few days of practice," recalls Kuester of what is known as "The Feast," the first days of grueling practice that weed out players who aren't in shape. "But he taught me discipline and what it means to be a team player."

Kuester claims the "Dean of Coaches" spied these harder-won attributes from the start.

"Dean Smith used to tell me, 'Coach Rut taught you well,' and he would not think of me as a freshman like some of the others."

"We recruited from Rut in '72," remembers Dean Smith, the Tarheels' coach whose 13 ACC championships are a record in college basketball. Now retired, Smith works as a kind of coach emeritus, answering mail, returning calls and speaking to myriad groups about his 40 years spent coaching college basketball. They've met only a few times, but Smith and Rutledge share much in common — from old-school coaching styles to a penchant for golf greens when the court becomes too stifling. "His teams were always fundamentally sound. They always played hard, unselfish and they could really handle the ball," says Smith. "I can tell you Rut's well-thought-of in the college coaching fraternity."

But unlike Smith, retirement is something Rutledge won't talk about, except to say the day hasn't come. "I still enjoy working with the kids. I get excited when we win; I get disappointed when we lose. I love the competition." When he doesn't feel this surge, then, he says, he'll know it's time to pass the job on to someone else. Until then, each season means there's potential. "One of the thrills of coaching is that every year is a new situation. To me, that's one of the most enjoyable things. You get this raw new talent and you have to develop that and blend it into a team."



In Benedictine's gym, 25 green-and-white felt banners from 1959 to 1999 read: "Benedictine State Catholic Champions." Lining three walls, they humble visiting teams and herald an almost unbroken chain of victories fought on the court by the forebears of Cadets basketball.

On any given afternoon, the sound of whistles and drums echoes from inside the heavy wooden double doors that face Belmont Avenue. But it's not the cacophony of a marching band. This blare is a different kind of music — that of rubber-soled sneakers screeching across the varnish and the accompanying boom of the basketball hammering the floor. It's a marvelous sound, invigorating and nostalgic — like listening to old records and sorting photographs.

It's the sound that floods Mark Royster's memory and greets him again daily. "I went to the games and I got hooked as a fourth-grader. At games the gym was packed and noisy with little kids shooting at half time. I grew up watching Coach Rutledge, in awe of him," says the '83 graduate who now assists Rutledge with the varsity team. "I knew then that I wanted to play."

Royster made the team as a freshman, and even got to play - for less than a minute. "Hell, I was thrilled to get 29 seconds," Royster says, "that's how much it meant to me to be on the team." Today, Royster's relationship with Rutledge as his assistant is much different from when he was a high-school player intimidated by the coach. "As a player, you never thought of him as a regular guy, you thought he was always out there talking to college coaches about you," recalls Royster. "But as you get to know him, he's just Coach Rutledge. He's got his own problems and things that he worries about other than basketball."

Nine years ago, Coach Rutledge stopped teaching algebra, and last year he gave up his position as Benedictine's athletic director, passing the ball to longtime teacher, football coach, and J.V. basketball coach Wes Hamner. He works now part time for an insurance group in the West End. But even after suffering a mild stroke, Rutledge refuses to give up his legacy as varsity basketball coach.

"It happened in the middle of December," Rutledge tells of his stroke. "It's a one-time type of thing," he adds dismissively. "It does awaken you and makes you appreciate good health." The night Rutledge was released from the hospital was the same night as a bristling game between Benedictine and Thomas Jefferson High School in the Richmond Times-Dispatch InSync Tournament. At the beginning of the season, the daily newspaper ranked Benedictine the No. 1 team in the area — today that position has dropped to eighth. Feeling the pressure even more away from the team, the recuperating Rutledge couldn't rest. "My son was giving me updates every four minutes from his cell phone at the game," tells Rutledge now with amusement. Playing the game for their coach, the Cadets pulled ahead and won.

It wasn't the only game he had to sit out. For the first time in 34 years, Rutledge had to watch, with the rest of the crowd from risers, the annual Benedictine Capital City Classic, a holiday tournament hosted by Benedictine, at Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center. The tournament that includes high-ranking teams from as far away as Philadelphia is the most heated and competitive of the season. And, it's one that Benedictine has won only four times in 34 years. "Watching from far away was even harder than sitting on the bench," laments Rutledge.



Basketball is a different game today from 43 years ago, and Coach Rutledge has seen every change along the way. "Today the style of the game has changed. I played games where the scores were in the 20s and 30s; today they sometimes break 100. And the caliber of the players today is so much more developed." The bottom line, says Rutledge: "You get a much more exciting game."

More exciting games, bigger schools, greater numbers of players — all this translates for Rutledge into more possible losses for his team. But as much as he likes to win, he knows well the importance of losing. "When you start a season, you know you're not going to win all the time." And with nearly 1,000 wins, he still has never led his Cadets to an undefeated season. They've never been crowned state champions. "Kids have to learn that disappointment's part of life."

What's more, Rutledge says, it's the unexpected wins against higher-ranking big city schools that make for the truly unforgettable wins.

"We won two back-to-back BCCC tournaments in '81 and '82 against Bishop Locklan from Brooklyn and Roman Catholic from Philly," Rutledge says proudly, describing the joy of an underdog victory. "I've always felt defense is going to win the games because sometimes the ball's just not going in the basket," he adds smiling.

This season has been more unpredictable than most. Since returning to the bench in late January, Rutledge has continued barreling toward the 1,000 career win mark. His Cadets currently lead the prep division but have slipped out of the top 10 in the Richmond Times Dispatch standings with an 18-8 record at the end of the regular season. This week, the Cadets play in the State Independent Schools Tournament at Richard Bland College, where they'll scramble to keep the prep league title. Coach Royster says their prospects look good, but competition from schools like Bishop Ireton and Peninsula Catholic could be tough to beat.

Whether he aspires to or not, Rutledge is the kind of coach who doesn't need 55 more wins to mark a milestone. Like the legendary Dean Smith, whose 877 victories at UNC rank him the all-time winningest coach in college basketball, Rutledge hates statistics. "I let other people take care of that," he says, shrugging off what appears to be of no more consequence than losing a sock in the laundry.

Rutledge still makes his mark the same way he has for 43 years — in an echo-charged, brightly lit, sweat-smelling gym. "You go to that first game and everybody just flocks to him," says Assistant Coach Royster. "And when our guys go out there and do exactly what he tells them to do," he adds beaming, "good things happen."

That's just the kind of response you get when you ask about Coach Rutledge.

Speaking by phone from his Philadelphia office, the respect in John Kuester's voice is more than professional - it's personal. "We had an away game last night, and I got in at 2:30 in the morning," he says. "But I would have called you at 3 a.m. knowing it was about Rut."

Jump to Part 1, 2,

Add a comment