Someone was sneaking into the gym.
He was sneaking in to shoot hoops in solitude when all the other boys had gone home. For months the scrappy freshman covered every inch of the wooden floor, never taking his eye off his target. With time, the baskets came easier, and soon he began to feel the cadence of the game. He wasn't a natural. Playing basketball required work work that had crushed him just months before when he quit the team. But with each concentrated shot, he watched the ball linger for that fleeting second snug in the net and he loved the game a little more. In-shape and sharpened, he proved to himself that he was a basketball player. What's more, the next season when he again tried out for the team, he proved to his coach he wasn't a quitter.
It may sound like the stuff of after-school specials, but it's the real-life experience of Benedictine High School basketball player, John Kuester, a 1973 graduate and 1977 ACC championship MVP, who played for Coach Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina and the NBA's Kansas City Kings. With 27 years spent shoulder to shoulder with the biggest names in basketball, Kuester, now an assistant coach for Larry Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers, credits his love of the game to one man - his high-school basketball coach, Warren Rutledge.
Clearly, Coach Rutledge has made his mark on Kuester. And probably 1,000 other young men.
After 43 years, Coach Rutledge still gets charged just by drilling the basics into every crew-cut-capped Benedictine Cadet who earns the right to play on his court. With 945 career victories, Rutledge, 68, is the state's winningest high-school basketball coach and the third-winningest active coach in the country.
Amazingly, even closing on 1,000 wins, Rutledge's record is not the all-time best. That title goes to DeMatha Catholic's Morgan Wootten of Hyattsville, Md., who in the most recent USA Today report topped out at 1,185 wins. Wootten started his career at the nationally reputed DeMatha in 1956, just a year before Rutledge joined the Benedictine ranks as athletic director a title that also encompassed being the head baseball and basketball coach as well as the assistant football coach.
Rounding out that list of the nation's top high-school coaches are the legendary four whose 1,000-plus-win careers began in the 1940s and '50s: DeMatha's Wootten; Robert Hughes of Dunbar High School in Texas; the retired Bill Krueger of Clear Lake High School in Texas; and the late Ralph Tasker of New Mexico's Hobbs High School.
Like these coaches, Rutledge has passed up college offers, choosing the subtle rewards of working with boys who are at an age when a coach is most likely to make a difference.
"There have been some college offers I've turned down over the years," acknowledges Rutledge. Once he was in the running for a coaching position at University of Richmond, and other colleges throughout the state have approached him. Still, when the subject's mentioned, Rutledge responds not with bitterness or hesitation, but simply annoyance that he has to provide an explanation. "I can't say I'm disappointed over not making the change. It's just been a job I've loved for 43 years."
In a time when basketball has come to mean multimillion-dollar contracts, portentous product endorsements and superstar invincibility, veteran coaches seem to have become transferable if not dispensable.
But here, in the paint of the hometown court, with the futures of 12 boys in your hands, coaching is still everything.
"Rut hired me for my first coaching job," says Bobby Ross, head coach for the National Football League's Detroit Lions. In 1959, Ross, a Benedictine alumni and VMI graduate, turned to his alma mater and Rutledge, then the school's athletic director, hoping to hook the position as head football coach.
"I'm forever indebted for that reason, though I won't say the win-loss record was a factor," chuckles Ross from his office in Detroit, where the former Georgia Tech and San Diego Chargers coach has held court for four years. Even though Ross spent only one semester with the Cadets as head football coach, he says his time there made an impression. What's more, he praises Rutledge's ability to adapt, calling him a coach who applies common-sense strategy and discipline to any game. "He was my assistant coach," laughs Ross, as if the thought of Rutledge as anyone's assistant is absurd. "I'm one of these emotional coaches," claims Ross, "and Rut is not." And evidence of Rutledge's impact, he says, is clear: "His ball clubs were always played with this kind of personality."
It's a personality committed to one program, one path, that even the NFL coach says he wishes he had cultivated more. "One of my regrets is my sons didn't get a chance to go to Benedictine," Ross says.
But John Beilein, head basketball coach of the University of Richmond Spiders, does know what it's like to have Rutledge coach his son. Beilein's son Patrick is a sophomore on the Cadets' varsity team.
"The record speaks for itself," says Beilein about Rutledge and his 43-year career. "It's mind-boggling to me. I feel like I've been coaching all my life and I've coached 650-700 games; he's won more than 900 nearly 33 percent more than I've coached."
Beilein's younger son, Mark, is a freshman on the junior varsity team, and most likely will fall under Rutledge's tutelage in the next year or two. "They have great discipline and great pride in what they do," affirms Beilein about the program. "It proves that the fundamental things that have been around for the last 40 years don't change, whether it's high school, college or professional basketball."
Philosophies of the game are as individual as coaches and players themselves. "There are a lot of coaches out there who press, run and shoot," says Rutledge, "but the fundamentals are key. In the close game it's the little things you do that determine winning or losing."
It's the fundamentals that are breaking down right now, the fundamentals that have Coach Rutledge shouting to forward Patrick Beilein from the bench: "Shoot the ball!" Beilein complies and the shot bounces against the glass and shimmies through the net. Rutledge retreats to the bench, but before he can sit, he sees the next play coming and springs back to the court's edge. The Cadets snag the ball from the opponent but Cadet point guard Bobby Grissom slides too quickly down court only to be double-teamed in his own zone. He attempts a near-impossible hook from below the basket misses and the Midlothian Trojans gain possession, then a basket.
"See what you got?" Rutledge stomps his foot and snaps the towel that never leaves his left hand. His thick white hair seems to stand on end. The three assistant coaches shake their heads.
By the end of the half, the Cadets have let slip a 5-point lead, and they're down by 3. Tossing back bottled water that quenches thirsts and eclipses the coach's glare, the five starters lead the way to the locker room. Lurching behind, the seven reinforcements, still in their green-and-white warm-ups, follow for what they know will be more than a pep talk.
"We've had too many unforced errors because we try to do too much dribbling with the basketball. We're overdribbling against the zone." Rutledge is surprisingly calm. Forcibly, though without blame or emotion, he explains the plan: "I don't want you to go offensively one on two or three. If you don't have anything good you get down court, slow it down and set it up."
On a little chalkboard Rutledge scratches what looks like a trigonometry problem, but it's nothing less than the fundamentals strategies and drills the team has learned and repeated over and over and over again at practice. There, the team hits the mark consistently Rutledge makes sure of it. But on the opposition's home court, it's a different ball game.
"Offensively, we're shooting the ball pretty good, but we've had too many unforced errors against the zone," Rutledge repeats. He pauses as if to give one last pointer but holds out, instead reading from his clipboard the players' names and their corresponding number of fouls. Then, as the visiting team praying for a comeback, Rutledge, his 12 players and three assistant coaches huddle to say the Hail Mary.Jump to Part 1, 2,Continue to Part 2