WINONA LAKE – It’s hard to be anonymous in Warsaw when you are Al Rhodes.
The mere mention of his name immediately creates basketball frenzy, not necessarily an immediate response to what happened this week or will next week, but to the glory days that helped paint Warsaw as the household basketball brand it is.
But there he sat Saturday night, patiently and quietly waiting for the call to be honored for his illustrious career and deserved curtain call. Jotting notes down as Valparaiso sparred with Zionsville at the inaugural Champions of Character Classic Saturday at Grace College, Rhodes sat up and away from most of the fans, dressed in all black and only wavering from his note taking to respond to a friend passing by him near the stairs. Rhodes, currently coaching at Penn High School, was just as busy prepping his scouting report on Valpo for when Penn visits the Region this Saturday. As much as the soon-to-be-honor was to be celebrated, Saturday was a work night. Much like the hundreds of scouting nights have been before.
“During the basketball season, you don’t have much time to sit and enjoy things,” said Rhodes at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center Saturday night. “I won’t be scouting the entire night, but with Valpo here and we play them next week (sneaks in a laugh), gotta get a look at them while I can.”
Rhodes, who is as much of a living legend in Warsaw as the town could have, was joined on the Jim Kessler Court before Warsaw’s game with Fishers by some of the coaches who have taken his wisdom and made it their own. The invitational, which easily could have and possibly could be called the Al Rhodes Invite, was formulated by four teams that all have one common tie. Al Rhodes. Warsaw’s Doug Ogle and Zionsville’s Shaun Busick were assistants for Rhodes at Warsaw, Valpo’s Barak Coolman helped Rhodes at Fort Wayne Northrop and Fishers’ Matt Moore was an assistant at Logansport.
As they all gathered for the photo op and a deserved moment with their mentor, it was a good reminder of what sound teaching can produce. With both Zionsville and Valparaiso coming into the day ranked in the Class 4-A top 15, and Warsaw making several deep runs in the state tournament, comparisons of Rhodes to the likes of Mike Lightfoot at Bethel have been proven sure time and again.
“It was a good way for Grace College and all of us to recognize Al,” Ogle said. “I spent the most time with him. Those other guys were with him for a few years, I was with him for 17 years. That’s quite a stretch. We have had a lot of enjoyable times together in coaching and just in general. I was glad to see Al get that type of recognition. Not only for being a great coach, but being a guy who has been a mentor to a lot of young coaches.”
The laundry list of accomplishments Rhodes has achieved in his Hall of Fame career would take a second column just to itemize. Some of the highlights, including a state championship for Warsaw in 1984, attach to a slew of wins in the state tournament and the guidance of such players as two Indiana Mr. Basketballs in Jeff Grose and Kevin Ault, along with Rick Fox and several other greats in the Tiger pantheon. At 586 wins as of last weekend, Rhodes is closing in on becoming just the 14th coach in Indiana boys hoops history with 600 wins, mindful of Lapel’s Jimmie Howell also owning an active 586 wins.
Was Rhodes taken aback by the moment, putting into perspective he has already coached a game at Warsaw as a Kingsmen coach in 2008 and took on the Tigers in the 2016 sectional? And, currently guiding Penn to a 5-1 start in his 38th season on the sidelines with no ambition of slowing down anytime soon?
“I don’t like playing against former assistants or head coaches I have worked for,” said Rhodes. “You take a look at the four gentlemen that are coaching in this tournament, and you really have the total package. First of all, they are all great people. Outstanding individuals that are excellent teachers, and then you get to say they are excellent basketball coaches. They provide more to their communities than just being a basketball coach.
“This is a really nice honor, it really is. I would like to think it celebrates their accomplishments as much as just mine. They have all gone on to make their own names at their schools and are doing great jobs there. I am still happy at Penn and hope to make them a better team.”
Saturday at Grace College was a celebration of basketball excellence, on and off the court. It likely won’t be the last time Al Rhodes is introduced to an adoring crowd in the future.