In the late 90’s, Rod Rutherford became one of the most decorated players to ever take the field for Perry Traditional High School’s football program. Lining up at quarterback and defensive back, Rutherford dominated Pittsburgh City League competition, earning Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Athlete of the Year honors in 1998 and 1999, while leading his team to a pair of City League championships.
Now, after four consecutive losing seasons and the departure of head coach Craig Aguglia, Perry has hired Rutherford as their new head coach, looking for their former star to revive the program and return the Commodores to the top.
“It kind of just fell in my lap, in a way,” Rutherford said, regarding the head coaching position at Perry Traditional. “The head coach at Perry (Aguglia), we had talked during the season – towards the end of basketball season – about me coming on and being an assistant. And then eventually he made a move to Shaler High School, and once he made that move to Shaler, the job was open. I applied with I think about four other guys, and it worked out in my favor.”
Rutherford originally returned to Perry in February as a project assistant, helping with community outreach, working alongside the school’s principal, mentoring young men and essentially lending a hand wherever one was needed. It was not until the departure of Aguglia, though, that Rutherford ever considered coaching his alma mater.
“I never really thought about it … It just kind of happened. And it’s kind of unique, but I think it’s good that it happened for me, as well as the young men and women in this school. But mainly the young men, in trying to help them to believe in themselves and to believe in using this vehicle – athletics and football in this case – as a way of getting themselves out of the situation that they’re living in today.”
Although it wasn’t a longstanding goal of Rutherford’s to serve as Perry’s head coach, the opportunity to do so is a welcomed opportunity.
“It’s a good feeling, being that I’m from the North Side, grew up on the North Side, live on the North Side, [and] played at Perry,” he said. “Having the opportunity to win a lot of ball games there, and just try to work to bring that back, is just an exciting thing in its own.”
With only eight wins in the last four seasons, changes must be made to the Commodores’ program before they can compete for a City League championship. According to Rutherford, he has a vision for how to revitalize Perry’s football program, and it centers on culture and attitude instead of the football itself.
“Honestly, I just want to help these young boys, and turn them into young men,” said Rutherford. “I want to let them believe it’s possible – anything’s possible if they believe in it. I come from some of the same streets that they come from, so I’m a living testimony to what they’re trying to do. I just, first and foremost, want to give them the confidence that they can do anything they want to do.
“I think the sport itself – the winning – that will all just take care of itself if we continue to mature, to work in the right direction and uplift one another.”
Instilling confidence within his players, and adjusting their perspectives towards life, will require time and diligence. However, as a current resident of the North Side and a native of the area, Rutherford understands the obstacles standing in his players’ way as well as anyone.
“It’s the same obstacles as anywhere,” said Rutherford. “You’ve just got to get guys to believe and buy into your system. Like I said, I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it’s just about believing in themselves. Over the years, they’ve just been going through the motions. A lot of people don’t understand their situation, the place that they come from, and the issues they may have outside of school and off the football field. I just want them to understand that that’s real; first and foremost, it is a real situation that they live in. But there’s a bigger world than what they’re living in right now.”
As a highly recruited quarterback out of Perry Traditional High School, Rod Rutherford elected to attend the nearby University of Pittsburgh. He began his collegiate career at wide receiver, where he cemented his place in Panther history with a 62-yard touchdown reception against Penn State as a redshirt freshman. Rutherford then moved to quarterback, eventually starting during his junior and senior seasons. Over those two years, he became one of the most productive quarterbacks in program history, setting the single-season record for passing yards (3,679), tying the single-season record for passing touchdowns (37), and placing in the top-5 of most passing categories. Pairing with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the two also developed a highlight reel that would rival that of any quarterback-wide receiver duo in college football history.
Following his career at Pitt, Rutherford joined the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad as an undrafted free agent in 2004. After one season with the Panthers, Rutherford then joined the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice squad for a year. In 2007, he also played one season with the Hamburg Seadevils of NFL Europe.
Upon the conclusion of his playing career, Rutherford quickly jumped into the world of coaching, joining Pitt as a volunteer quarterback coach in 2007. He spent 2008 at St. Vincent as a defensive backs coach, 2009 and 2010 as a graduate assistant at Pitt, and then five seasons as the wide receivers coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
During his nine seasons of collegiate coaching, Rutherford received the opportunity to serve under coaches like Pitt’s Dave Wannstedt and I.U.P.’s Curt Cignetti, two men who have achieved considerable success at their respective levels of competition. He learned much from both, especially Wannstedt, and will look to employ the lessons of Pitt’s former coach at Perry.
“I think I learned a lot from Coach Wannstedt,” Rutherford said. “He’s been around a lot of great teams, a lot of great players, and his biggest thing was, ‘keep it simple.’ Let them play. Let them have fun, so they can play fast. The guy who gets to his technique the fastest will be the guy that will be most successful. And I think it’s just that simple. We all have our systems, we all have our style – offensively, defensively and things like that – but if we can make it simple and fun, I think you become very successful.”
The system Rutherford will install at Perry is derived from years of playing and coaching under esteemed head coaches, and will focus on the “keep it simple” approach. Under Rutherford, playing football will be fun, but it will also prepare his players for college football, should a player have the good fortune to continue his career at the next level.
“I think football is still a game that is a simple game that we’ve all played when we were a young man. I want it to be fun. I want it to be a game they can play and not have to think too much. But I also want to teach them the game for the ones that may go on to play at the next level – college football, or hopefully some level of professional football.”
The Commodores begin fall camp on Monday, August 7th, with what Rutherford calls a “heat week.” For the first week of camp, players will practice in helmets only, acclimating to the late-summer heat of Pittsburgh before they put on their pads in week two. Monday will serve as Rutherford’s first opportunity to implement his own system and gauge which players will lead his team on the field in 2017. Having accepted the position so late in the previous school year, Rutherford’s interactions with his team thus far have been limited to strength and conditioning sessions.
Monday will also mark Rutherford’s first time coaching players on the field since concluding his tenure at I.U.P. after the 2015 season. And although he hasn’t coached football in over a year, Rutherford never felt as though he removed himself from his true calling.
“I think coaching for me is all about mentoring,” he said. “I love the game. I think the game has done a lot for me; it’s given me an opportunity to go places that I would have never dreamed of. But I’ve never stopped mentoring. I’ve never stopped trying to help. It’s good to get back and be involved in football, but I think my calling has always been to help young men.”