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Rams coach helped build competitive basketball at Ryerson
Roy Rana will enter his first NBA game, as chief of staff and assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings in 26 days, on Oct. 23.
It’s the next big step for the former head coach of Ryerson’s men’s basketball team, who spent nine years here and compiled a 116-53 regular-season record.
The Kings are young and rebuilding, kind of like the Ryerson team Rana joined 10 years ago.
At the time, the team was still trying to find its way to respectability, after climbing out of the gutter of a winless season in 2003-04.
Just a few months before Rana would join the team, Garth Woolsey wrote in a Toronto Star article that Rams sports teams were “better known for losing than winning, sometimes to the point of being laughingstocks.”
In a telephone interview during the summer, Rana said he was very familiar with the Rams basketball program and knew what he would be inheriting once he took the job. He had coached in championship games at Kerr Hall while he was with Eastern Commerce high school and he had watched the Ryerson team play.
He says that from the moment he set his eyes on Ryerson, he knew it could become something special. “I just felt it was this kind of jewel sitting in the middle of the city and had so much potential and it was always a job that was kind of my dream job in Toronto if I wasn’t (coaching) in high school,” he said.
Rana, 50, was hired in August 2009 when Ryerson was “ready to invest in their basketball team,” according to Ivan Joseph, the university’s former athletics director.
That investment would come later though, and Rana had to battle through the transition period.
In his first year, the team lost two more games than it did the year before he arrived. And his record over his first three years was just 34-32. But Ryerson was committed to his long-term success and making the school more attractive to top players.
“We had assistant coaches, we had academic tutors, we had sports psychologists. So we had a full gamut around Roy to support his pursuit in attracting the best players,” Joseph said.
Ryerson was also about to have something even more special — a fancy new playhouse for some of its teams.
A 2009 referendum would give Ryerson $20 million to invest in a new athletic facility, the Mattamy Athletic Centre, that would be built in the former Maple Leaf Gardens.
The referendum passed, with 74 per cent of student voters approving, and showed that students at Ryerson, and the university itself, were willing to invest heavily into athletic programs.
It paid off. The next six seasons, Rana’s record was 82-21.
Rana said he wasn’t discouraged during the rough early years because he knew the program would start to turn around once he was able to bring in new players and change the culture of the team.
Joseph says the facilities were a key to getting those players. “People don’t realize how detrimental it was to attract top athletes to Kerr Hall gym. When word got out that we were building Maple Leaf Gardens, we’re getting a new facility, then all of a sudden our status started to change.”
On Sept. 6, 2012, as Rana began his fourth year as coach, the MAC opened. But it wasn’t just the shiny new facility that was going to turn around the team’s fortunes. It was the players. Rana said coaches don’t win without great talent.
He said he was able to recruit great players by selling them on his vision of what the basketball program at Ryerson could become: “From the schedule we would play, to the gear we were going to wear, to the winning we were going to do, to the opportunity they were going to have to carry on their dreams as professionals,” Rana said.
In 2010 Rana recruited Jahmal Jones to Ryerson. He would go on to play professionally overseas, for Debreceni Egyetem in Hungary, then BC Prievidza in the Slovak Basketball League.
The next year he recruited Aaron Best, a 6 foot, 4 inch forward who would later go on to play in the NBA G League for the Raptors 905.
Recruiting better players was the first step. Rana still had to turn the team into a winner. He said winning basketball games consistently requires more than great players.
“You have to build a process and build a system and build the way you play. Stay relentlessly committed to it and tweak it.”
It started on defence, with his teams consistently being in the top five in the OUA. “We were one of the best defensive teams in the country for most of my time there and for the last five seasons for sure, and I think we were close to that on the offensive end.”
The Rams also ranked top five in points per game three times since 2010, with an average of 82.2 points per game scored.
Carly Clarke, head coach of Ryerson’s women’s basketball team, said Rana “was tremendous at building his team’s culture and laying out expectations for this team.”
Clarke was hired in 2012 and was the women’s team coach for five of Rana’s nine seasons at Ryerson.
Clarke said Rana was able to make his players successful because of the culture he developed and his willingness to hold players accountable.
“If you don’t do what was expected you would know, whether that’s a substitution or feedback in practice.”
Rana said the biggest goal in his first year was changing the team’s culture.
“I probably did too much and pushed too hard. But it laid the foundation of how I was going to grow as a coach and how we were going to continue to build the program after that first recruiting class came in,” he said.
Rana’s success wasn’t limited to the basketball court at the MAC.
“Roy didn’t compete just in the province or in Canada,” Joseph said. “He competed on the international stage with his Nike Hoop Summit, with his NBA in Canada world championship (Jr. NBA Global Championship). He brought Ryerson to the international stage of excellence.”
For the past nine years, Rana has been the head coach of the World Team at the Nike Hoop Summit, coaching future NBA stars like Jamaal Murray and Ben Simmons.
Joseph said Rana’s prestige helped turn Ryerson into an internationally respected program.
“I haven’t done the numbers for that, but I will tell you a few things you can measure. I remember, the first time he played Wake Forest, that Ryerson’s school website had the most number of hits ever. I remember when we had the Boston Celtics in here training or the time we had Lebron James in our gym or Dikembe Mutombo in our gym. I know for a fact that people came to Ryerson. Like the Nike Summer League that we have. Things were attracted to Ryerson because of the success Roy brought. Now I can’t say we had x number millions of dollars in donations because of it, but I can tell you that the light shone brightly on our athletic department and Roy was a big part of that.”
Joseph said he knew the men’s basketball program had turned a corner when the team qualified for its first U-Sports final four.
“We took five busloads of fans to Waterloo to support them and we beat Lakehead, which we had never done. We weren’t expected to qualify for our first basketball championship,” Joseph said.
Rana didn’t win a national championship at Ryerson but said he has no regrets — except for one possession against the Calgary Dinos in the 2018 U-Sports Men’s Basketball Championship game. The Rams lost 79-77 after allowing an uncontested layup with two seconds left in the game.
Rana’s team the previous year also lost to 14-time U-Sports champions Carleton University in the 2017 national championship game, 78-69.
Joseph said Rana was great at competing with Carleton, regardless of their head-tohead record in the U-Sports championship game.
“If you look at it, this year they beat us for the OUA final four, but the year before we beat them. Not only did we beat them but we also knocked them out for the national championship, and the year before that I think we had beat them. I think we’re the only team to have gone in their home and beat them for the final four OUA championship.”
Rana said what he will remember most about coaching at Ryerson is helping student-athletes chase their dreams of becoming professionals. He said he’ll have many lifelong memories.
Clarke said she thinks Rana will be remembered at Ryerson for his sustained excellence and always striving to better himself and the men’s basketball program.
Outside of the trophies, championships and graduating players, Joseph said Rana showed that excellence happens at Ryerson.
“He brought Ryerson to the international stage of excellence. There’s very few coaches and leaders here that have done that. It’s an aspiration that we can all look at as something to shoot towards.”