From Damian Lillard and beyond, Randy Rahe leaves Weber State hoops program most proud of the relationships he cultivated

Upon retiring after 16 years with the Wildcats, he concedes even he was “oblivious” to just how good star guard Damian Lillard had become in his final season.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State Wildcats head coach Randy Rahe, shouts instructions to his players in basketball action between Brigham Young Cougars and Weber State Wildcats, at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018.

As outgoing Weber State men’s basketball coach Randy Rahe and his wife Laura sat behind a makeshift dais Tuesday morning, chatting with reporters about his decision to retire after a 16-year run with the program, he reflected on big games won, conference championships, NCAA Tournament appearances.

All the on-court success was great and meaningful. And none of them can hold a candle to the inside jokes he and his assistants have developed over that period, or the feeling of bonded camaraderie he and his athletes had.

“People were asking me the other day: ‘What are you gonna miss the most?’ I’ll be honest with you — I’m not gonna miss practices, not gonna miss the games. What I’m gonna miss is the relationships,” he said. “Hanging out with my staff, hanging out with the players, having the players over to my house and Laura spoiling them.”

Of course, his most famous player remains Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard.

It’s still hard to believe that the NBA superstar was so lightly recruited out of his hometown in Oakland that he wound up in Ogden.

Then again, Rahe conceded that it took even him a long time to fully realize what he had.

“I’d be lying if I said [I believed] he’d be this good. It started hitting me a little after his freshman year. But it was really after his sophomore year,” Rahe said. “We had a kid that played for us, Kellen McCoy — great little player, love him to death — but we’re in the summer, working out, Damian was MVP of the league, and [McCoy] comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, Damian’s gonna be an NBA player, right?’ And it hit me. And I thought, ‘You know what? He might be.’ That’s really when it kind of hit me that this kid’s special.”

Even then, though, the coach admitted he still didn’t have a full grasp of just how elite a player Lillard would become.

After the guard broke his foot 10 games into his third year with the program, he returned for his redshirt junior season. He got off to a hot start, then took it up a notch in the fifth game of the 2011-12 season, dropping 36 points in a road game at Saint Mary’s. After the Wildcats returned home, Rahe recalled being befuddled at the phalanx of NBA scouts and general managers in attendance at the team’s next practice.

“I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ I was oblivious to all this stuff, Damian being on draft boards. I was just trying to win the next game, that’s all I knew,” Rahe said. “So I remember grabbing one of the NBA GMs who came to our practice, and we’re talking about Dame, and I looked at him and I says, ‘Am I gonna lose Damian?’ And he starts laughing. And he says, ‘Well, yeah, you’re gonna lose him. He’s gonna be a top-10 pick.’ And I went, ‘Holy …’”

The coach was quick to add that however incredible Lillard is as a professional basketball player, he’s an even better human being.

“Couldn’t be more proud of him. Laura and I love him to death. He’s family,” Rahe said.

That was a frequent theme in Rahe’s comments Tuesday, roughly 24 hours after the news came out that he was stepping aside to let associate head coach Eric Duft take over.

The relationships mattered the most.

Yes, he had incredible on-court success. But his main objective was having a program founded on character and integrity and values and culture. He wanted his players to leave the program with college diplomas in hand, ready to enter the world at large as successful men — be that as husbands, fathers, or simply members of society at large.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve never lost a player that we wanted to keep to a transfer. … In 16 years, we’ve never had a kid in the newspaper for screwing up or doing something wrong,” Rahe said.

Now, he said, it’s time for him to turn his full attention back to his actual family.

Rahe said that his decision to retire came about rather abruptly. After wrapping up yet another bit of recruiting, he and Laura decided to take a quick vacation last week to Hilton Head Island, S.C. As his mind wandered to thinking about the Wildcats’ upcoming summer workouts, he suddenly realized that his enthusiasm had waned a bit.

“We were sitting around having a few glasses of wine — which is what I’m really good at — and I was starting to think about getting ready for the June program, and I just didn’t feel the same way about it. I just didn’t have quite the same passion, the same excitement,” Rahe said. “And I’ve told myself forever, if I lose any of that, I’m gonna know it’s time to go. And it kind of hit me. We looked at each other, and she said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘I think I’m ready to be done.’”

He wanted Laura by his side Tuesday to share in the attention. After all, she was retiring, too, from 16 years spent supervising student-teachers at the university, and from a 30-year career as an NCAA Division I women’s referee.

Basketball has long been the event that bound them. Rahe prompted his wife to share the recollection they’d had on their daily walk Tuesday morning. She said that when her husband first got the Weber State gig, they decided to give their sons Luke and Kade — 6 and 4 years old at the time — gigs as ballboys. Kade was put by the hoop nearest the Wildcats’ bench, in case he had any separation anxiety.

When Rahe returned home late after that first game, Kade immediately ran up to him, stuck his hand out, and summarily informed him that he owed $18 to the family’s communal “cuss jar.”

“Eighteen was low, I thought,” Rahe joked.

Still, now, he’s ready for things other than hoops to bring them together.

“I’ve been consumed by this stuff for basically 37 years of college coaching and 16 years here at Weber State. It consumes you — 24/7, 365 days a year it never leaves your mind,” he said. “And I know that, at times, I’ve probably neglected Laura and the kids a little too much. Now it’s our time.

“… We’re both very much at peace with our decision, and looking forward to having some fun, that’s for darn sure,” he added.

Randy and Laura’s future isn’t too mapped out at the moment, though she did allow that she recently got him on a training program, and, “We’re gonna leave here in about a week and go to Italy — ride bikes through Tuscany, and then we’re gonna go to Rome and hang out with the Pope for a couple days. … We’ve got this big, bright, wide-open future.”

Hoops, of course, won’t be completely out of the picture.

“One thing Laura and I talked about [is] going around Europe or wherever and just going to watch all our guys play,” Rahe said. “I’ve got a lot of guys [around the world] playing at a high level.”