Pitt-Johnstown vs. Gannon – Jan. 6, 2020

Pitt-Johnstown men’s basketball coach Bob Rukavina (left) and members of the Pitt-Johnstown bench react to a 3-point shot by teammate Joe Batt with 1.3 seconds remaining during their game against Gannon on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.

Three decades and almost 500 wins later, Bob Rukavina probably still can hear the old landline telephone ringing in his office at the Pitt-Johnstown Sports Center.

After he was named head men’s basketball coach of a struggling Mountain Cats program in May 1989, Rukavina annually fielded dozens of calls from teams hoping to play Pitt-Johnstown, then an independent program without a conference.

“We were coming off a 2-25 season and hadn’t had a winning season in at least 10 years,” Rukavina recalled. 

“Being an independent, I would get 40 phone calls a day from teams wanting to play us. I could have had 120 games on the schedule.”

Pitt-Johnstown had enjoyed only four winning seasons in the 20 previous years. Back in the spring of 1989, the Mountain Cats had suffered 10 consecutive losing records and dropped 175 games in that span.

Why not try to get on Pitt-Johnstown’s schedule? At the time, most teams viewed it as an almost certain victory.

“I think after the second year, we turned the corner and we had our first winning season,” Rukavina said. 

“Then, we beat Youngstown State, a Division I school, on the road. 

“We beat Slippery Rock, ranked No. 2 in Division II, and nobody had beaten them the previous year until the playoffs.”

Suddenly, the phone stopped ringing.

“Once we won the 20 games for the first time (in 1996-97), I couldn’t get games,” Rukavina said. “We were still independent and nobody wanted to play us. We had to go to Missouri for a tournament. We had to travel all over to get games.

“It went from everybody in the country calling, to nobody wanting to play us. We knew we had arrived.”

Road to 500

Another stop on this memorable, 31-season ride awaits Rukavina, 63. 

The affable coach needs one victory to reach the coveted 500-win milestone.

A Lower Burrell, Westmoreland County, resident, Rukavina travels 65 miles to work in Richland Township several times each week.

This year, he has a young and successful team in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Western Division – one season removed from earning the division’s coach of the year honor.

The Mountain Cats (14-2) host their next three games, beginning Wednesday night against Mercyhurst at 7:30 at the Sports Center. Slippery Rock visits on Jan. 18 and Division II power Indiana (Pa.) travels to Pitt-Johnstown on Jan. 22.

“Bob is one of my best friends. He’s not only a great coach, but also a good man, a good person,” said Pitt-Johnstown Athletic Director Pat Pecora, the Mountain Cats’ wrestling coach. 

“The basketball players have the highest grade-point averages of the male sports. 

“He’s done a great job of keeping the culture of the program.

“He keeps track of the alumni. He’s built a real close-knit family. I have so much respect for him as a coach and a person.”

Rukavina first joined the Pitt-Johnstown program in 1988-89 as an assistant coach under Chris Kristich. After Kristich was fired, Rukavina emerged as the top candidate and eventually was promoted to head coach.

Prior to Pitt-Johnstown, he was an assistant for two years at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) Allegheny Campus and head coach for two years at CCAC-South Campus. Rukavina also spent five years as an assistant at Riverview High School in Oakmont.

Changing expectations

When Rukavina took over at Pitt-Johnstown, outside expectations were tempered. Local fans might have wondered if the Mountain Cats ever could find a way to win consistently.

Rukavina had no doubts.

“When I got the job, Pat Pecora said, ‘Hey Bob, just get in here and try to be competitive,’ ” Rukavina recalled. “He said, ‘You don’t have to beat the great teams. If you’re competitive and the kids graduate you’ll be all right.’

“I said, ‘I appreciate that but I’m a very competitive person. I don’t like to lose.’

“My goal wasn’t just to make us competitive,” Rukavina added. “I was used to winning wherever I had been at the high school or junior college levels.” 

‘Stability’

The man who hired Rukavina saw not only a winner, but a coach who might stay for the long haul.

“We went through a number of coaches when we were in that growing period,” said former Pitt-Johnstown Athletic Director Ed Sherlock. “We needed stabilization. Bob appeared to be a very stable guy who had a good record at Allegheny Community College. He was highly recommended.

“We needed to get some stability in the program.”

Rukavina’s first two teams combined to win 17 games while dropping 35.

In 1991-92, however, the Mountain Cats went 16-11 for the program’s first winning record since 1978-79.

Then the wins began to pile up with regularity. In 1996-97 (21-6) and 1997-98 (24-5), Pitt-Johnstown reached the NCAA Division II Tournament, something that would have been unimaginable a decade earlier.

“Those first two tournament teams we had were special teams, especially the second time in 1998,” Rukavina said. “The whole starting five on that team in 1998 are in the (Pitt-Johnstown Athletics) Hall of Fame.”

Left out of the dance

The youthful 1998-99 team surprised people and Rukavina still believes received one of the biggest slights of his career.

Those Mountain Cats went 23-4 and were ranked as high as second at one point before falling back a few spots. But that exceptional team missed the NCAA Tournament.

Still an independent, Pitt-Johnstown had no chance for an automatic bid. Rukavina said a couple of highly ranked teams were upset in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WVIAC) Tournament.

The WVIAC champ advanced to the tournament with the automatic bid and an upset victim took an at-large bid, Rukavina recalled, leaving Pitt-Johnstown out of the mix.

“We had five new starters and we won 23 games,” Rukavina said. “That’s when they only took six teams from each region. Being independent, we were ranked third in the region going into the last game of the year. We were on a 12-game win streak and they dropped us to fifth in the region.

“We knew if there were upsets in the conference tournaments, we could get bounced out. That’s what happened. 

“That was so disappointing. I’ll never forget that.”

Justin Walther was part of Pitt-Johnstown’s first two tournament teams as well as the 1998-99 squad that was left out of the field.

“I remember the disappointment of losing the first year but getting the reprieve and winning the first-ever NCAA Tournament game for UPJ with Ruk,” said Walther, Pitt-Johnstown’s all-time leading scorer with 2,073 career points and a member of the university’s athletics hall of fame. “That was something special. In my opinion we had the best teams that were ever at UPJ. We really played well together and had a great coach to lead us.

“My junior year, we had a great team, 23-4, and we didn’t even get a bid,” added Walther, now coach of Serra Catholic High School’s boys basketball team in the WPIAL. “We thought we were going to the Final Four that year and we didn’t even make it to the tournament.”

Pitt-Johnstown returned to the NCAA Tournament as a member of the WVIAC in 2007-08 (23-8) and 2008-09 (24-8).

The Mountain Cats joined the PSAC in 2013-14. Last season, Pitt-Johnstown went 17-13 and Rukavina earned his second PSAC Western Division Coach of the Year honor. He’s also been a WVIAC Coach of the Year and in 2006 was National Independent Coach of the Year.

‘More than a coach’

Rukavina’s success and longevity stem not only from his competitive drive and knowledge of the game, but also from his ability to connect with his players.

“He’s the ultimate player’s coach, in my opinion,” Walther said. “Anytime you needed something, he was there for you. 

“If you needed a maintenance day or an academic day, he understood. He was great. I was lucky enough to have lost my scholarship at Robert Morris to get to play for him.”

Greater Johnstown High School graduate Devlin Herring had a Pitt-Johnstown Athletics Hall of Fame career playing for Rukavina from 1994-98.

“He was more than just a coach. He was a friend and a mentor,” Herring said. “He was interested in what you were doing outside of school as well. (500 wins) will be well-deserved. He put in so much time and effort.”

Rukavina knows when to display emotion on the floor and when to maintain a low profile. He tells his players exactly what is on his mind.

“I liked him as a coach because he was just to the point and direct,” said Herring, who played on two NCAA Tournament teams. “He didn’t hide anything. 

“If it was something that called for emotion, he gave it to you. He pointed out the good and the bad. He let you know you could always do better and strive for perfection.

“I think that was why our team was so good. We had that winning attitude. He kept us motivated. Our practices were like championship games.”

Youth movement

The current Mountain Cats have won with a heavy underclass lineup.

“Last year, five of our top seven guys were freshmen and we didn’t know what to expect,” Rukavina said. “We ended up winning 17 games with some great wins at the end of the year. When we had our end-of-the-year meeting, I said, ‘The future is bright.’

“You can see a huge difference in the guys from freshmen to sophomores. 

“There is confidence. We’re still very young, though.”

Indeed, the players also have made Rukavina feel young. 

He and his wife, Sharon, have a son, Nick, who is a sophomore at Pitt-Johnstown – where he is on the track team, plays in a jazz band and assists the basketball team.

“It’s gone so fast. It’s been great. I love it,” Rukavina said. “People ask me, 

‘When are you going to retire?’ I say, ‘If I retire then I’d have to get a job because I don’t consider it a job. I love it.’ ”

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.

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