Point Park basketball coach Bob Rager rides into sunset
Bob Rager grew up in the housing projects of Munhall, looking for a way out.
“I needed guidance,” he said.
But there was a problem: “I wasn't a great listener,” he said.
Fortunately, he acquired that skill just in time.
His basketball talent led him to Point Park College (now Point Park University) in 1970 when he started listening to some of the city's top coaches — Bill Shay at CCAC-Allegheny and his own coach, Jerry Conboy.
And now, in retirement, he joins them. When Point Park opens practice Monday for the 2017-18 season, Gabe Bubon will be behind the whistle, shedding the interim label he held last year when Rager's knee couldn't endure the rigors of coaching and, of course, the bus rides.
In 27 years, Rager, 66, won 381 games, surpassing anyone who has coached at a four-year school in Pittsburgh. More games than Doc Carlson (367) and Jamie Dixon (328) won at Pitt.
Rager's secret: He knew the players because, at one time, he was one. A good one, too.
He was Point Park's first basketball All-American, but he admits, “I wasn't a role model. As a matter of fact, I was pretty far from it.”
But he had a message and, ironically, the players were now listening to him. And, to his credit, he wasn't afraid to take a chance on players other schools rejected.
“We had similar backgrounds. I told (the players), ‘If I can get out of that situation, you can, too.'
“I was a second-chance guy. I can't lie. People used to joke I was a players' coach. I really liked that.”
He demanded discipline from his players — just not on the court.
“If you didn't shoot, I was mad at you,” he said. “It was run-and-gun, organized street ball. I didn't want it to be disciplined. We wanted to shoot the ball within seven seconds and get the ball back from the other team.”
In Rager's mind, leaving a player back to protect against a fast break only left you vulnerable on the offensive boards.
“We did everything that was unconventional,” said Rager, who was a 43-percent shooter as a player. “Five guys beating the hoop all the time. No one back on defense. It was a style the players enjoyed.”
Point Park led the NAIA in scoring four times, topped by a 93.24 average during the 2012-13 season.
Rager spent 34 years at Point Park as a player, assistant, head coach and even athletic director for a time.
“They were comfortable with the things we were doing,” he said. “We sent a lot of people out into the world that they were pretty happy (with).”
Bubon said Rager could be tough on officials, but his demeanor mellowed over the years.
“I was his shadow,” said Bubon, who served as Rager's assistant for 13 years after playing for him during the 1999-2000 season. “I was pulling him away from the referees.”
During the interim season, Rager and Bubon spoke on a daily basis.
“He wanted to know what was going on, but he let me do my own thing,” said Bubon, only the third Point Park coach since 1969.
(Sound familiar? The Steelers also have had three coaches in that time frame.)
Now that their conversations occur only about once a week, Bubon said, “I kind of miss him. He could always make me laugh.”
Rager said he is retiring largely because he recalled what Shay told him a long time ago.
“You have to be a lion tamer, and I lost that,” he said. “Ask Siegfried and Roy. Don't turn your back.
“Some days you didn't wake up anxious and happy to do it. If you can't give it all, you have to give it up. You're cheating the people. You're just taking money.”
Rager, who made $15,000 a year as a rookie head coach in 1989, always had businesses on the side as a fallback plan. His plan is to sell his South Hills restaurant, take the recipes and open a chain of pizza franchises, starting in Bradenton, Fla.
His daughter's family lives there, and he's looking forward to spending time with his 6-year-old grandson Colton, who already is showing some athletic skills.
“We have him doing 10,000 pushups a day,” Rager said.