Editor’s note: John Krysinsky is the publisher of our brother site, Pittsburgh Soccer Now. John is a Point Park alum and was men’s soccer coach for the Pioneers from 1996 to 1998.
On Wednesday, I was saddened to hear of the passing of former, long-time Point Park University men’s basketball coach, Bob Rager, who was 67 years old. Rager was one of a kind, larger than life personality who did things his way.
At Point Park, where he was an All-American player, assistant and coach for 34 years, Rager left behind quite a legacy as the school’s all-time wins leader as coach, amassing a 381-365 record when he officially stepped down in June 2017.
He had a candid style all of his own, wasn’t one to hold back his thoughts and no matter what was going on or what the situation was, he could make others laugh.
Our paths crossed in many ways over the years, when I was a student at Point Park, in my media roles with the Globe, WPPJ radio and other outlets, when he became Athletic Director, and took a chance to hire me as the soccer program’s coach. And later, when he coached my son, J.J.
Bob certainly left a legacy not only at Point Park but in the Pittsburgh basketball and the Munhall, Homestead, West Mifflin area communities where he was a fixture.
He was also a popular figure on the coaches and athletic banquet speaking circuit, and probably could have had a career in observational comedy, as he could bring a room full of people into gut-busting laughter.
In 2011, as he was pushing his way up into the ranks of the all-time wins totals among Pittsburgh-area college basketball coaches, he was gracious enough to sit down with me for an interview for a story about his legacy as a coach.
Despite his boisterous personality and enjoyment he got from sharing stories and amusing everyone he came into contact with, Rager preferred to stay away from the spotlight.
Here’s the article I wrote in 2011.
Bob Rager came a long way since he first arrived at Point Park College in the early 1970s. After a successful playing career, in which he was the school’s first All-American men’s basketball player, he became the longest tenured and winningest coach at Point Park – surpassing his former coach Jerry Conboy in January 2011 with his 306th win against Malone College.
He takes a very simple outlook to the game he loves and has been around his entire life.
“I didn’t play or coach for the accolades. I am not comfortable with that part of it,” said Rager. “Being involved in sports is about getting the best out of yourself and it should be enjoyable. That’s why I do it.”
Rager’s journey to Point Park began when Jerry Conboy paid him a recruiting visit when he was a junior at Munhall High School in 1968.
“I still remember when Jerry (Conboy) came to visit me for the first time. He was an assistant at Davidson University (NC) under Lefty Driesell. He drove up to my house in one of those wooden paneled station wagons when I still lived in the housing projects in Munhall. He was wearing shorts, and I remember my mother saying, ‘hey look at the legs on this guy.'”
Rager didn’t go to Davidson, as fate would have it, he injured his knee and Conboy, who had become the head coach at Point Park, found a place for him to excel.
The two men could not have been more different, but together as a player and coach, they brought the first taste of success to Point Park basketball in the early 1970s.
“Jerry Conboy is Point Park basketball.” Rager said. “He was an innovator and a great coach who was ahead of his time. He brought great success to Point Park basketball and the athletic programs.”
“You never forget someone who helps you out and makes a difference in your life. We were different, yes, but he had a great influence — always looking out for me as a player and as a person.” …
“The smartest player I ever had,” Conboy said of his star guard, who would later serve as his assistant coach from 1984-87. “He would do what ever it took to win and I am proud to now see what Bob’s accomplished as a coach.”
DOING IT HIS WAY
In 1989, when Bob Rager became head coach at what is now Point Park University, he quickly set himself apart and built a basketball program in his likeness.
“How we played at Point Park completely reflected coach (Rager)’s attitude,” said Randy Smith, who played for Rager in the early 1990s.
“You can get all the street players in the world, but if a coach wants to slow the ball down and run a structured offense, that’s what they will do. But Rager’s attitude is, ‘If you have the shot, take it! If you miss, so what? Get back and play hard D.’ ” We loved it. What player wouldn’t?”
Rager doesn’t hide the fact that he wants his teams to play what he calls “organized streetball” and even proudly preaches to his players, likely to the ire of some basketball traditionalists, that “bad things happen when you pass.”
“I’ve often been asked, ‘Who’s the best basketball coach around, is it Jamie Dixon at Pitt? Duquesne’s Ron Everhart?'” Paul Zeise, sports writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and former player for Rager at Point Park, said. “But I’ll tell you one thing, I know who I’d rather play for the most – and that’s Bob Rager. It was a great experience to play for him. He’s a great guy. He wanted to win as much as anyone, and most importantly he made it fun.”
It wasn’t easy at first for Rager as Point Park struggled to a 28-52 record in his first three seasons.
“Most coaches will tell you that you really need four years to get a program where you want it to be,” said Rager. “When I first took over, we were rebuilding and had to start over. I wanted to play a high-powered offensive style and outscore everyone. We didn’t have the players at the time and it can be harder at a small college to find players to fit your system.”
He also knew of the additional obstacles, such as Point Park’s lack of facilities to call their own for many years as the Pioneers practiced at the Downtown YMCA (which is now Point Park’s Student Center) and home games have been played at CCAC-South (a new convocation center is in the works as part of Point Park’s expanding Downtown campus).
In time though, Rager found talented players and Point Park found success. His fourth season, 1992-93, brought his first winning campaign. Led by one of the nation’s top big men, NAIA All-American, Schenley High School product Kenny Walls, Point Park made the Keystone-Empire Collegiate Conference (KECC) playoffs with an 18-10 record. Mediocre seasons followed Walls’ departure, and just when some were counting Rager out, he orchestrated one of the most amazing runs in local college basketball history in the spring of 1997.
Fueled by the talents of Damon Wade, Ty Rozier and DeVaughn Halsel, Rager’s Pioneers stunned longtime rivals Geneva and Westminster to win the KECC tournament and march to Tulsa, OK in the NAIA 32 team Division I National Tournament.
“It was incredible,” Oli Theodorsson, who started at small forward for the 1996-97 Pioneers, said. “We believed that we could beat anyone, but no one knew who we were or where Point Park was from – and coach played that card perfectly.”
“That was a special group. We were good, we knew it and had great team chemistry,” said Rager.
RAGER HAD HIS PLAYERS LOOSE AND CONFIDENT
“He told us to enjoy the moment. He didn’t put any added pressure on us,” said Theodorrson. “He knew what we were capable of doing.”
The unseeded Pioneers only had hotel reservations for two days. But that would not be enough.
“We played highly ranked Lipscomb University (TN) in the first game. They were led by legendary coach Don Meyer,” recalls Rager. “When I met Meyer the night before at the pre-tournament banquet, I remember shaking his hand and saying to myself, ‘These guys don’t really know what they’re in for.'”
Rager’s Pioneers beat Lipscomb in a stunning upset in the 9 a.m. game the next morning.
“When we got in a team circle after that big win, and I knew we didn’t have another game for two days, I told the guys they had an 11 o’clock curfew. They said, ‘No coach let’s make it 10 PM’ and I said, ‘No, I was talking about 11 AM.'” chuckles Rager.
His squad went on to win two more games, including another major upset over second-ranked Hawaii Pacific to advance to the Final Four, where they finally fell short in the semifinal to No. 3 Oklahoma Baptist.
In subsequent years, Rager led the Pioneers to two more NAIA Division II national tournament appearances and won American Mideast Conference (AMC) Coach of the Year twice.
“Bottom line is that players win games,” said Rager. “To play run and gun and be successful, you have to have the players and we’ve been fortunate to have had some great players. My job has been to guide them.”
Rager’s best overall season and coaching job may have been 2006-07. The starting unit did not have a player taller than 6-2. Not to be deterred by lack of size, this quick, up-tempo Pioneers team posted a 29-2 record and the highest ranking in school history – No. 3 in NAIA (Division II). Instead of a euphoric trip deep into the national tournament, however, heavily-favored Point Park fell early to Spalding University in a first-round upset.
“You can’t turn the ball over 20 times and expect to win a tournament game,” he told a dejected group afterwards. “We had a great season, and one bad loss.”
Recently, Rager has been honored for his contributions making a difference in the lives of young student-athletes.
In June 2011, he served as the commencement speaker at Steel Valley High School graduation where he was named as part of the school’s Distinguished Alumni (his former Munhall High School is now part of current Steel Valley School District).
In 2009, he was honored as a Pittsburgh Most Valuable Person (MVP) at the Annual Willie Stargell Awards banquet for having a positive influence on young people.
“To me, being a coach, it’s all about the kids. It’s the greatest time in their lives and I try to be honest and straightforward with them about life. There are a lot of things you can teach and I do not tell them how to do everything, but I try to help them find themselves.”
Rager’s 310 wins heading into 2011-12 season, his 23rd at the helm, now ranks as the third-most wins of any four-year college basketball coach in the City of Pittsburgh. The all-time leader in that category is longtime Pitt coach Doc Carlson, who had a record of 367-248 in 31 years from 1922-53. Next on the list is Duquesne’s Chick Davies, who compiled a mark of 314-106 in 21 years from 1925-43 and 1947-48. Conboy now stands fourth with a record of 305-241 in 20 years from 1969-89.
A humble Rager finds it humorous to be mentioned in the same sentence with coaches like Davies and Carlson.
“Those guys are really legends. They set the standard for all of the coaches that followed. I got lucky and have had a chance to coach and do something that’s fun for a long time.”
“Bob has done a great job to continue what we started. He knew what it would take to have success at Point Park. To win over 300 games is a great achievement,” said Conboy.
Rager’s legacy at Point Park and in college basketball is secure – and he still sees himself on the sidelines for more years to come.
“I am still enjoying what I do and as long as I can relate to the players, I will keep coaching. Although every so often I’ll make a reference to my players about something like the 1956 Lakers, and they look at me funny,” Rager said.
“The records don’t matter to me, and wins come and go, but I am proud to guide student-athletes to succeed in academics, basketball and in life.”
Not bad for a kid who came from the Munhall housing projects.