Paul Rodio, one of the winningest coaches in the nation, picked up career victory No. 1,000 this past season, and said he has no plans of stopping anytime soon. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
The shots that critics may take at St. Augustine Prep basketball coach Paul Rodio are easy. Of course it’s easy for the Hermits to win so many games each year, they get all the best talent from multiple counties.
The shots that opposing players try to take against St. Augustine Prep? Not so easy.
Yes, the Hermits attract all-star caliber players from around the area each year, but you don’t reach 1,000 career high school victories with just talent alone. And it wasn’t always that way. Back in the late 1970s, St. Augustine Prep was just a remote little school buried in the woods in western Atlantic County. It wasn’t the basketball juggernaut you see today.
Back in early January, coach Rodio — who has his named inscribed on the court at St. Augustine Prep because he’s been coaching, and winning, there for more than 46 years — reached the near-mythical 1,000 career wins plateau, becoming just the second coach in state history to reach that famed number behind the legendary Bobby Hurley Sr.
And Rodio did it in ultimate Rodio fashion. Visiting Ocean City — coached by John Bruno, owner of 450-plus varsity wins — threw everything it had at the Hermits when they played in Richland on Jan. 11. The Red Raiders kept coming back, getting defensive stops, making steals, making big shots.
And still they lost by nine points.
The Hermits simply did what they do best: handled the pressure, stayed calm and hit their free throws down the stretch. That’s been a hallmark of Rodio-coached teams throughout his nearly five-decade tenure: play smart, play under control, exploit the other team’s weakness, get a lead and make them chase you.
“What I’ve learned from him over the years is he really knows his team well. He knows what buttons to push and seems to know what changes to make,” Bruno said. “And his charismatic attitude really rubs off on his kids and makes them want to play for him. That’s what you have to get, more than anything else. Not just have kids play, but get them to play for you — and that’s what he does so well. His ability to communicate with his kids is something you can clearly see. He does a great job at working kids into the right spots for what they can give to the team.
“You very rarely see them have down moments,” continued Bruno, “where as most of the high school teams, a two-minute lapse is an eight-point swing. That’s what we’ve encountered when we played them this year. He just exudes confidence. His players have confidence in him and they never really seem to get flustered. That’s what makes them so hard to beat — they are always so in control, and that’s a reflection on him and what he stressed to them. That’s how they play.”
Thinking about that number — 1,000 wins — almost makes your head hurt. Most high school teams play about 25 games per season. Even if you won 20 games every year, and did that for FORTY years, you’d still be 200 wins shy of a grand.
“It’s kind of really unconscionable when you think about it. Not many people have a really good perspective on it. I’ve won more than 450 games but have also lost more than 300. I’ve COACHED less than 1,000 games, and I’ve been doing it for 34 years. For me to grasp winning 1,000 games — it’s one of those numbers you never thought anybody would do it, and that’s why only two people have done it,” Bruno said. “The biggest thing is the longevity. I know everybody says he has good teams, but when you’re coaching every day for 40 years, it’s not as easy as people think, regardless of the quality of the team you have. So, I give him so much credit for wanting to get the gym every day for all those years. And winning doesn’t always make things easy. I’m sure he’s had his share of tough losses and situations he’s had to deal with, but to do it for 40-plus years, he’s coached longer than some of the coaches in South Jersey have been alive. And in this day and age, with so much going on, longevity is a lost word.”
“What goes through my mind the most is that I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do this as long as I’ve been able to do it. One of the reasons why it’s going to be difficult for somebody to break that record is because it’s going to be very difficult for somebody to be coaching for 40 or 50 years. Not many people stay in in that long anymore. If you win 20 games a year for 40 years, you’re still 200 wins away. I don’t know if it’s the wins that are more impressive, or how long I’ve done it,” Rodio said. “When I first started, in the late 1970s, it was a whole different view. The best way I can say it is, when I got a call from a parent in the 70s they would say, ‘who’s he hanging around with at lunch? Is he around the right kids? Is he moving in the right direction? Is there anything I can do to help him?’ If I get a call from a parent today it’s ‘why isn’t he getting more shots? He’s better on the right side than the left side.’ That’s one big difference. AAU has changed the game drastically.”
“I joke around all the time, Paul Rodio is a unicorn,” said Prep Athletic Director Mike Rizzo. “There aren’t many people doing anything for 46 years, especially in education. I hope he stays around a lot longer. He’s impacting not only our students, but our adults every day. Young teachers learn from him every day. And I’ve been learning from him for a long time. He’s impacted thousands of students — not just basketball players.”
Want to know just how much of an impact Rodio has had at St. Augustine Prep? Go on campus and ask anybody you run into if they know where you can find coach. They won’t ask you if you mean football coach Pete Lancetta. They won’t ask you if you mean baseball coach Mike Bylone. They’ll simply direct you to Rodio’s office.
“He’s THE coach,” Rizzo said. “We have about 75 coaches in 21 sports, but he’s THE coach. Everyone can relate to him. If a kid is struggling, even if it’s in another sport, he’ll make sure he goes and sees him at lunch and tells him to keep his head up. When push comes to shove, it doesn’t matter what sport a kid is playing it’s the same types of adversity that they face.”
Rodio has also been a beacon of light shining on the Cape-Atlantic League, which sometimes gets overlooked a little bit when it comes to basketball. Having Rodio and the Hermits in the league raises the credibility of every other team in the league. Getting a chance to play the Hermits makes teams like Ocean City, Mainland, Atlantic City, Millville, Middle Township and others better, even if they lose.
“He’s the lighthouse to this league. I always want our league to do well and when the state playoffs come there’s never been a time when I don’t want a Cape-Atlantic League team to win. He’s perennially been that coach who can keep hope alive (for the league). When you compete against him, that sends a message to us,” Bruno said. “Prep is probably going to go pretty deep in the playoffs, and we were able to stay with them. They become the measuring stick. Everyone wants to beat them, that’s for sure, but when you don’t they become that measuring stick to where you are (as a program). Like with us, winning that game earlier this year would have been tremendous, but losing it was a positive because it gave us confidence.
“I just think he’s great for the league. He gives us an identity. For years when Gene Allen was at Atlantic City, he was one of those lighthouses, too. He put the Cape-Atlantic League on the map. Paul has done that with St. Augustine Prep. People notice the CAL because he’s in it.”
Rodio said the biggest thing that has made him so successful for nearly a half century has been his ability to adapt, not only to the particular players he has on his team in a given year, but to society and the times he’s living in, the expectations of fans and parents, and how to relate to a generation whose parents were still babies when Rodio was getting started.
“You better be able to adapt to change,” Rodio said. “The difference between high school and college is, If I want to run a fast break, I can’t just go get four or five quick kids, I have to hope I have them. If I don’t have that, I have to adapt to what I have. If you’re not able to adapt to the talent you won’t be successful. I’ve been lucky in my career, I’ve had big teams, I’ve had small teams, I’ve had quick teams — and one of the points of our success is we’ve been able to change our team to whatever our strength is.”
Still, much hasn’t changed. The game still requires kids to put a round ball into a round hoop, and the discipline and desire it takes to be consistently good at that as a unit really hasn’t changed. The philosophies are tried and true and continue to be applied to today’s players.
“The players are more skilled and much quicker than when I started coaching. You have kids today who are ready for college right from the beginning of their high school careers,” Rodio said. “But kids are kids. Down in their core, they are all about the same. The kid today is the same down deep in his heart as the kid in 1975. Society has changed them a little bit and our view of athletics has changed, but down deep the kids are basically the same.”
Rodio suffered a major health scare last year and nearly didn’t make it out alive, but he’s feeling great now and who knows, maybe another 100 or 200 wins could be achievable. He said he’s not planning on retiring anytime soon. And that’s good news to some of the veteran coaches in the league, like Bruno, Dan Williams at Mainland and Cameron Bell at Egg Harbor Township. They value Rodio’s friendship as much as they respect him as a competitor. They don’t want to see him ride off into the sunset.
“What I’ve always enjoyed is that we’ve known each other for such a long time that we talk about friendship. We talk about what our kids our doing, and the game becomes secondary,” Bruno explained. “It’s kind of like that friend you grew up with in high school, you may not see them all the time, but when you do see them it’s like you just saw them yesterday. We really stress the camaraderie and basketball becomes secondary, especially with what he went through last year. What I wish other coaches would do is develop that kind of friendship first and have the basketball competition be second. But with so many coaching changes the last 10 years, it’s hard to develop that.”
Whenever Rodio does step away from the bench, he doesn’t care how many wins go up on a banner on the wall. What he cares about most is people, and having a positive impact on them every day.
“I hope I’ll be remembered for having helped a lot of kids, both on and off the court,” he said. “That’s why I got into education. I’m influencing kids every day, and when I hope that when it’s all said and done that I’ve influenced enough.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays