MISHAWAKA -- Al Rhodes sported a new black and gold tie on his chest Thursday afternoon, courtesy of a purchase that wife Kathy made this week, but the black and gold on the other side of his chest, in his heart, was anything but new.
"There's just something special about being able to do something you love right in the area where you grew up," an unusually blushing Rhodes said after being introduced at a press conference as Penn High School boys basketball coach. "I really didn't expect this opportunity, and just am really looking forward to it."
Rhodes, the ninth head coach in Penn's 51-year boys basketball history, becomes the first one who played at Penn.
On Thursday, Rhodes recalled practically growing up at the Park-N-Shop grocery that his uncle owned and his father managed on the corner of Lincolnway and Beech in Osceola. He also reflected on lessons learned from his late mom, a longtime teacher at Grissom Middle School, and said he was looking forward to spending more time around his sister, a teacher in the Penn system.
"It's always nice to have somebody who has a vested interest in the place he came from," Penn athletic director Ben Karasiak said. "It's huge. And talking to him, you can tell Al cares. It's his alma mater. He's going to do the best he can, and as I understand it, he's a tireless worker."
For Penn, that Rhodes is one of their own is just a bonus.
They're also getting a coach renowned in basketball circles, one who owns seemingly countless honors and a 454-192 record over 27 seasons, including a 1984 state title at Warsaw and 50 other assorted championships.
Rhodes, a 1970 Penn graduate who will teach math at his alma mater, said "academics and athletics do not have to be in conflict."
"I want kids that do a great job in the classroom, and I want kids that do a great job on the basketball court," Rhodes said. "I want them to learn to pursue excellence. That's what we're going to do here. My goal is simply to have the best basketball program that's ever been."
Rhodes said the more material goal on the court will always be a state championship -- something his own coach at Penn, Jim Miller, often talked about, but something the Kingsmen never have won in basketball.
"Taking the job here, that has to be the one goal of our program," Rhodes said. "As I say that, I think of Coach Miller saying, 'Finish!'"
Rhodes, 55, succeeds Dean Foster, whose retirement was announced just 14 days earlier.
Foster went 169-70 over a decade at Penn with seven Northern Indiana Conference titles, five sectional titles, three regional titles and a Class 4A state runner-up finish in 2001.
Last season's Kingsmen closed at 14-8. Point guard, top scorer and Valparaiso University recruit Tommy Kurth is expected back from that team, while the next three leading scorers have graduated.
Rhodes said he inherited monumental rebuilding tasks with his last two programs, Logansport and Fort Wayne Northrop, but added that's not the case at Penn.
"It's already very good," Rhodes said. "There are excellent assistant coaches here. We have hard-working kids, we have promising young players. I think everything's here. Now it's a matter of trying to use my expertise to make improvements."
Rhodes said his teams typically play "a little quicker on offense" than Foster's and "more multiple on defense," but added that "we'll try to build on the things that are already there."
"I think my strength has always been working with the feeder programs, and that's what we'll do," said Rhodes, adding that he feels like he built the state's best feeder program at Warsaw. He also said the nature of Fort Wayne schools didn't afford such a chance.
Rhodes said he was pondering pursuing other types of basketball opportunities when he resigned at Northrop almost two months ago, but didn't hesitate to pounce when the Penn position came open.
"I guess most coaches keep a list (of desirable schools), and Penn's always been high on that list for me," Rhodes said. "The different times this job has been open, based on where we were with our children, this is really the first time for this opportunity for me. One of the reasons we stayed at Warsaw so long is because we wanted (now-grown sons) Chris and Curtis to have a hometown, and we were fortunate enough to be able to do that."
Karasiak said the committee charged with choosing a new coach "had to rush the process," given the date that the search began, but added that he was pleased by both the quantity and quality of applicants. Those applicants were screened down to 12, then four were interviewed.
Rhodes, who commuted from Warsaw during his four years at Logansport and one at Northrop, said he hasn't had a chance to consider whether he will now sell his home to move closer to work, but said market conditions might prevent him from doing so immediately.
"I'm certainly not against moving," Rhodes said. "If it works out, I'd like to live across the street."