Above: Dick Rago says getting his athletes to complete their degrees is his top priority.
By Kevin Noonan
Photos by Jason Burlew
In his first season as men’s basketball coach at Delaware Technical and Community College, Dick Rago didn’t win a single game.
In his third season as coach at Delaware Tech, Rago didn’t even play any games.
And that’s what made his fourth season so remarkable — Rago’s Spirit team won the Region 19 championship.
So, how does one go from 0-27 to champion in just four years?
“We had good kids who wanted to work hard and wanted to be coached and they wanted to study, as well,” Rago says. “Most of these kids were stars on their high school teams, but many of them had to become role players here, and they accepted that. When we won the championship, the 11th and 12th men were happy as hell. And that’s what really makes coaching fun.”
Rago, as anybody who follows basketball in Delaware knows, made his mark as coach of the St. Elizabeth High boys’ team over a 30-year period, when he won more than 350 games, was named Catholic League coach of the year five times, and qualified for the state tournament nine times in his final 10 seasons.
With a resume like that, it’s no surprise that Rago is a legend in the St. Elizabeth community. But Rago’s real legacy at St. E isn’t the number of games he won — it’s the number of boys he helped turn into men.
And that, as much as his success on the court, is what led Delaware Tech to hire a man who had never coached at the college level and was seemingly content in retirement.
Delaware Tech’s problem pre-Rago was simple: It’s a two-year school, so the players are only in the basketball program for a short time. And to make matters worse, most of those players weren’t staying for both of their seasons, which meant they weren’t staying long enough to get their degrees, a necessary step on the way to a four-year college. So, the school’s strategy was simple — get the players to stay for basketball and they’ll end up staying for their degrees.
That’s why, in 2018, Rago got a phone call from Delaware Tech president Mark Brainard, who knew Rago was a local legend with strong connections in the state and had a reputation as a no-nonsense leader who would prioritize his players as student-athletes.
Plus, the guy knew how to coach.
“We are extremely fortunate that Coach Rago was willing to help us rebuild our statewide basketball program that focuses on student success in the classroom and on the court,” Brainard says. “It provides our student-athletes a great opportunity to benefit from his leadership and his extraordinary knowledge of the game.”
From Worst to First
Rago was happy with his decision to leave St. Elizabeth, but he also missed basketball during his brief retirement, even though he watched all of St. E’s games, as well as those of Salesianum, his alma mater. But it was Brainard’s emphasis on academics that clinched it.
“I wasn’t looking to coach again, I had no intention of coaching again, and I certainly didn’t expect to coach at the college level,” Rago says. “But Mark Brainard presented it in such a way that it got me interested, because he put such importance on having Delaware kids who get their degrees —he was more concerned about that than he was with wins and losses. So, I talked to some [basketball] officials I knew around the state and they all said, ‘Go for it.’’’
So, he did, and never looked back, even during that brutal first season when the Spirit lost every game. Rago didn’t accept the job until late September, and he never laid eyes on any of his players until the first practice of the year. That was a big difference from St. Elizabeth, where he had his players for four years and knew about most of them well before then because of Catholic Youth Ministry (CYM) play and travel teams.
There was improvement the second season, but the third one was wiped out by the pandemic. Then, in his fourth season, after a so-so start, Delaware Tech got hot at the end of the year and qualified for the playoffs, then surprised everybody by winning the District 19 championship.
“It was great, because the kids got to see their hard work pay off. That helped establish our program on a lot of levels,” says Rago, who credits assistants Murphy Marbury and Tim Massado (one of his former players at St. Elizabeth) for much of the Spirit’s success.
“The championship was a great selling point. The first couple of years, I had to chase people to come here. This last year, I’ve had coaches and players calling me.”
Students As Well As Athletes
Even more importantly to the school’s administration, Rago’s players stayed for two years and left Delaware Tech with their degrees. After a long spell when nobody did that, six of Rago’s players from last season, as well as the team manager, have graduated and now three of them are playing basketball at four-year schools.
A shining example of that approach is sophomore Syed Myles. He was a good player at Caesar Rodney High, but didn’t attract attention from major colleges, so he ended up at McDaniel College, a Division III school in Maryland. That didn’t work out, so he left and enrolled at Delaware Tech to focus on his studies. In Myles’ mind, his college basketball career was over.
But a friend urged him to try out for the Spirit team, so Myles called Rago, who was more than willing to give him a tryout. It’s a decision that paid off for both. Myles led the team to the regional championship last year when he averaged 18.4 points per game. This season, he’s averaging more than 22 points, which is 15th in the nation among junior college players; and he’s already been chosen as a Region 19 Player of the Week. More importantly, he’ll get his two-year degree in marketing and now there are several four-year schools interested in him.
“It’s still hard to believe how things have turned around for me, and it’s hard to put into words how much Coach Rago and this team means to me,” Myles says. “I really needed somebody to believe in me, to give me a second chance, and he did.
“Coach Rago is intense, and he demands that you work hard, but he’s also a lot of fun to play for,” Myles adds. “And he’s even more interested in us as people and not just as basketball players and that just makes you want to play even harder for him. Playing here, for Coach Rago, has been a real blessing for me.”
Anchored By Delaware Roots
Another of Brainard’s criteria was to become more of a state-based team, and that mission has also been accomplished, especially when compared to the other college teams in the state.
The University of Delaware’s basketball roster of 16 players includes just one from The Home of Tax-Free Shopping (.062 percent). Delaware State’s roster has five state players on its roster of 16 (.312), Wilmington University has six of 16 (.375) and Goldey Beacom has five of 18 (.278).
Meanwhile, Delaware Tech’s roster of 16 players includes 14 from Delaware (.875). And of the two Delaware Tech players listed as out-of-state, one was born in Delaware and went to high school in Florida, and the other is from Landenberg, Pa., which is just a three-point shot from the Delaware border.
Those First Staters include sophomore Cole Matthews (Smyrna High), sophomore Jaelin Joyner (Caesar Rodney), freshman Keyon Scott (Dover) and freshman Devin McDowell (Newark). Their second leading scorer at almost 14 points per game is freshman Ethan Schmidt from Kennett High.
All that good news doesn’t mean Delaware Tech is in cruise control, and the Spirit didn’t even have smooth sailing during last year’s championship season. The Spirit had a losing overall record (11-13) in 2021-22, but its 8-4 regional record got it into the playoffs and Delaware Tech won two straight to win the title before losing in the district round.
This season, Delaware Tech returned just two key players from last season’s Region 19 champs — Myles and Matthews — and went into its winter break with a 5-10 record, and 0-4 in the region. Rago is hoping for a resurgence like his team went through last year, but he knows nothing is certain in junior college basketball.
And that includes his future at Delaware Tech. Rago is in his late 70s and is still active running his law firm, so he knows this second lease on his basketball life won’t last forever.
“I’m extremely happy I took this job, but how much longer can I go, I don’t know,” Rago says. “When they hired me, they said ‘Coach, we want you to come in and turn things around, then turn it over to your people.’
“So, we’ll see what happens, and when. Right now, I’m focused on helping these young men meet their goals, on and off the court, and I still get a lot of satisfaction out of that. It’s why I got into coaching and it’s why I’m still coaching.”