Whether it’s the athletes, coaches, front office staff, athletic directors or training staff, it takes a small community to build a winning atmosphere, no matter the level of the sport.
Away From the Game profiles movers and shakers in the Wyoming Valley athletics world, this week features Misericordia University women’s basketball coach Jason Rhine.
In his first season at the helm, Rhine has turned the program completely around. After finishing the season 7-18 last year — Misericordia’s fourth-straight season under .500 — the Cougars are 17-6 heading into Tuesday’s game at DeSales University and have already clinched a postseason bid in Freedom Conference play.
Prior to taking over the Cougars, Rhine spent time at both Aurora University, in Aurora, Ill., and Washington and Jefferson College, in Washington, Penn.
DJ EBERLE: First off, it’s the program’s first winning season since 2011-12. You guys are in the playoffs. What has this year been like for you?
JASON RHINE: Some people keep asking me if it’s been a roller coaster, and it has. I knew what my expectations were as a coach and I’ve always treated it just one day at a time no matter what you’re doing, and it’s just always looking ahead. No matter happened in your past — personal or professional — you always just have to look ahead and keep striving to be your best, and that’s kind of what we’re about.
And I guess, this being your first year as a head coach of a program, it really couldn’t go much better then?
Yeah, I’m pretty happy and and thankful and grateful. Misericordia’s a pretty special place, and I knew that going through the interview process, but yeah, it’s been pretty nice.
So you guys had senior day (Saturday) and you pull out a 30-point win. How meaningful is this senior day? Not only is it your first senior day as a head coach, but if you look back at the past three years that (Shannon Croasdale and Justine Seely) have had, this is their first taste of success.
Yeah, and I talked to them early on and told them, “What’s the footprints that you’re going to leave on this program? You walked in some shadows here and went through some tough times, but tough times don’t last and it’s up to you if you want to be successful.” They’ve really bought into that.
It was a special moment down on the court for their senior day because they know how much I care about them and I know how much they care about me.
You’ve been here since July. How has the transition been for you?
The transition’s been tough. The basketball world is crazy with job hunts and and getting hired later on was a bit of a struggle for me, even personally for me. You have to move your family, find new friends, but it’s been very rewarding because I’ve always strived to be the best I can even if I’m just getting thrown into the water. Sink or swim situations, I’m always finding a way and that’s kind of how it’s been the last six months.
And I know a big draw for you was not just the university itself, but you’re from (Palmyra, Pa.), you started out in Pennsylvania before you went out to Illinois last year. How has it been to get back in your home state?
It’s been fantastic. There’s little things you learn to appreciate, and for me, one of those was Turkey Hill iced tea. As silly as that sounds, there’s little things that you grew up with and you learn to appreciate. Even just, I’m a big outdoors person when I’m not in the gym. I love to fish, so being back around where I’m comfortable and able to do that stuff is nice.
So in the first seven months, what have you liked best about Misericordia itself? The university.
I think it’s just the atmosphere. The environment is something special. It’s so welcoming and any time we bring a recruit here, I want them to have that taste of what I’ve been (experiencing). Like, Misericordia recruited me. They brought me in and interviewed me. They’ve recruited me for this position. Now it’s my duty to be able to give back. I love showing everybody — friends, family, recruits — the welcoming atmosphere here.
I know you’re in-season so you haven’t really had a chance to step away from the game per say because you’ve been practicing and had games, but what are some of the things you do to take that mental break.
I’m a big “King of Queens” fan.
I love that show. I have every season on DVD.
Me too. Actually, in my TV right now is Season 2. On game days I watch it. Earlier today I had it on.
I always find that I’ve been lucky enough to coach with some longtime coaches, and some veteran types. They’ve always said you have to have a balance. As silly as it sounds for other people to know that you’re watching “King of Queens” before a game, if it’s true to you, you have to keep it. I always have balance with that.
My fiancé and I are outdoors doing things, so I always take time to appreciate those other things. At the end of the day, I’m so lucky to be the coach. You just have to take advantage of what life has to offer.
Have you seen “Kevin Can Wait” at all?
What are your thoughts on it?
I’m not sold on it yet. Only because Chale and the wife (Donna Gable), it’s hard for me to replace Carrie Heffernan. It’s hard and I feel like Chale, I don’t know what his role is yet, but I’m not sold on them. My fiancé hates it. She loves “King of Queens.” I’ve been trying to tough it. Even on DVR, too, I’m like, “Alright, I’ll give it a try.” It’s tough.
So what’s something that people would know about you?
Hmm, that’s tough. I guess when I say I like to fish it catches a lot of people off guard. The other thing too is, I feel like I’m still a kid at heart. There’s a lot of things that I just love to (do). I just go out in the backyard — I’m grateful that my fiancé played sports in college as well — because she’ll go out an throw a football with me. Just the little things like that.
I love just the simple things in life. I’ve never been somebody that takes a lot to impress me. I just want to be happy and smile and do the other things that keeps you healthy and alive.
Fishing, how did that become something that you were interested in?
You know, growing up in foster care down in the Harrisburg area, there was this small pond that was near our house. I wasn’t always in the best homes — obviously foster care — and I’m a huge advocate for (the National Foster Parent Association) — and I had this rod. I had this grandpa that I had in my life at the time and he gave me this fishing rod. The moment I went out the first few times, it wasn’t even about catching anything. I could sit out there for hours. It was more about, “OK, let’s just take it back. Let’s worry about the things I have full control over in my life.” It really became a spiritual thing and a mental thing for me and that’s kind of where it came from.
Now, just my fiancé and I, we go up to the lake, we find other lakes, we find different places to fish and I kind of got her on board with it. It’s hard when they’re not catching anything, but I think she understands it means something to me. That’s what it’s about.
How does fishing compare back in Aurora to here in Pennsylvania?
Oh, it’s much better here. It was tough goings over there. A lot of flat lands. They have lakes over there, like Lake Michigan and all of that, but I’m more of the quite scene. I’m not about hopping on a speed boat and going deep sea fishing. I’m not opposed to it, but I prefer to relax and just kind of hang out.
Have you ever considered ice fishing?
I have. Last year I started catching northern (pike) and people were telling me, “Ah, they’re even better in the winter.” Tunkhannock Lake, up there, I wanted to go get out there this winter, but the season gets away from you. But more importantly I’d rather be here. When that thaws up, we’ll be back up there.”
Now I’m curious, are you an NBA guy at all?
Kind of. I’m an NBA fan up until the point where it’s not fair. They’re not calling travels and it’s getting too dramatic.
I will say I’m a huge college basketball fan. March Madness, my fiance and I — and I’m not kidding when I tell you this — those (first two days), we’re off. We go, we post up somewhere and we’re watching every game up until they play the “One Shining Moment.” That’s our one big thing.
I know we’re still four or five weeks from Selection Sunday, but are there any teams that you have your eye on?
I’ve always been a big Kentucky fan, and people are going to say, “Oh, bandwagon.” But I actually liked them when they were really bad, when they had some tough years. Coach (Calipari’s) a player’s guy and I read a lot of his stuff, but probably my favorite coach is (Kansas head coach) Bill Self. A true professional and I think he’s just a phenomenal program leader, has a lot of presence. (Texas head coach) Shaka Smart is another favorite of mine.
I was a (graduate assistant) at (California University of Pennsylvania), which is where Shaka started as a GA. When I was a (first-year) GA I got to meet him. Just how humble he was and how simple he was, was something that stuck with me because I always thought that college basketball was you had to out-smart everybody and you had to have the brand new stuff and you had to have the schematics of everything, and it was like, “No. Be simple, be true to yourself and good things will come your way.”
Lastly, we’re starting to near the postseason a little bit. This team’s obviously had great success and you’re no longer the hunter anymore, you’re the hunted. The philosophy I’m sure has changed a little bit from the beginning of the year. What has your message been to the team as the postseason nears and teams are coming for you now?
Our biggest thing now is to just stay the course. I told them, “We’ve shed a lot of sweat. We’ve shed a lot of tears. There’s been some blood. We’ve worked way too hard and we’ve saw what the hard work gets us, and now you’re on top.” One of my favorite quotes is, “If you have everything it takes, it’s going to take everything.” It’s kind of where we’re at right now. “OK, we have everything, but now it’s going to take everything to stay on top.”
We still think we have some dark horse left in us, though. We’re not No. 1 in the region, we’re No. 4 out of 51. We’re not first in the conference. We’ve beat first and we’ve competed with second, but we’re not there yet. We still have some hunting to do. I tell them, “Cougars, they hunt and they always hunt.” That’s survival, and that’s what we’re about and our players love my acronyms and love the stories that I bring. I just want them to stay hungry with it.