Long commute, lifelong memories for Lower Burrell resident, UPJ coach Rukavina
It is 65 miles from Lower Burrell to Johnstown.
Bob Rukavina, the coach of the Pitt-Johnstown men’s basketball team, makes the round trip several times each week.
“My wife (Sharon) was a teacher at Riverview, and she retired a few years back,” said Rukavina, a Verona native and Lower Burrell resident. “My whole family, on both sides, are right here. I’ve taken care of my mother in New Kensington. We love living here, and we never talked about ever moving.”
Rukavina’s pride for the Alle-Kiski Valley is matched by the pride he has for his accomplishments in the game of basketball from his time during the merger of Verona and Oakmont into Riverview to his three decades as the leader of the Mountain Cats.
Rukavina and seven other A-K Valley greats make up the 50th class of the Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame. The group will be inducted May 18 at the Quality Inn in New Kensington.
“This is truly special to me,” he said. “Most of the people in the Hall of Fame, if I don’t know them personally, I know of them.”
Rukavina noted his connection to two fellow inductees.
“My rheumatologist for 22 years was Dr. Paul Killian,” he said. “He retired in December, so we said our goodbyes. The next thing you know, we’re getting inducted into the same class. He’s a great person and doctor on top of being a great athlete.
“I had my two hip replacements, and I did physical therapy at Westarm, which Brian (Jacob) owns. I’ve also played tennis at his house.”
Rukavina was a freshman on the last Verona High School boys basketball team in 1971 before the merger with Oakmont to form Riverview for the 1971-72 academic year.
“We weren’t a playoff team that first year, but we were competitive,” he said. “Then the next year, we ended up winning the section and got to the playoffs.”
Rukavina said the merger played out as smooth as one could’ve hoped for the players and Riverview’s first coach, Jack Schmitt.
“For Verona and Oakmont, we had so many guys,” Rukavina said. “There were 12 seniors on each of those first two teams, and they were so used to playing. But there wasn’t any conflict among the players. With two rivals coming together, people sometimes worry that the players aren’t going to like each other. That wasn’t the case at all. All the guys got along.”
Riverview missed the playoffs in Rukavina’s senior season, but he earned MVP honors in the section. He established the program’s single-season assist record that stood for 42 years.
Rukavina played in the preliminary game of the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic.
“It was a really big event back then,” he said. “They had the best players in the country come in.”
Rukavina played baseball under Bill Beebe, and he led the team in hitting as a senior.
College basketball pursuits were short-lived as ankle injuries ended his playing career.
After graduating, Rukavina returned to Riverview as an assistant basketball coach under Schmitt from 1979-84. He also coached football under Chuck Wagner and track under Fred Favo. Schmitt, Wagner, Favo and Beebe are in the A-K Valley Hall of Fame.
“I got off to a good start being around some really good coaches,” Rukavina said.
Rukavina then spent time as an assistant basketball coach at CCAC Allegheny, as the head coach at CCAC South and one season as an assistant at Pitt-Johnstown before being named coach for the 1989-90 season.
Before Rukavina took over, Pitt-Johnstown had only four winning seasons in 17 years. The Mountain Cats forged a winning season just two years into his tenure (1991-92).
“When I got the job, I would get 50 calls a day to schedule us because we weren’t very good,” he said. “We were independent my first 18 years, so we had to make an independent schedule. After we got good and made two NCAA tournaments, we had to travel to Missouri and North Carolina to get games because no one wanted to play us.”
In Rukavina’s 30 seasons as coach, the Mountain Cats have made four trips to the NCAA Division II Tournament and posted seven 20-win seasons, including four in a row from 2005-06 to 2008-09.
He earned his second Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Coach of the Year honor this past winter as he helped produce two all-conference performers while starting three freshmen for most the season. Pitt-Johnstown advanced to the PSAC quarterfinals before losing to IUP.
Rukavina owns a program-record 485 victories.
A statistic he said he takes a lot of pride in is the graduation rate of his players over his three decades as head coach.
“Only two players who finished their senior season didn’t graduate,” Rukavina said. “I stay in touch with almost everyone I’ve coached. The life-long relationships are a special part of the job.”
Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-856-7400 x8632, [email protected] or via Twitter .