The easiest way to demonstrate what Greg Rahn has done for Pacific Union College basketball is to first look at the numbers.
The Pioneers went 18-6 this year, which is the best record in school history by seven games. Rahn has amassed a 40-36 record over three seasons, bringing the program more wins under his watch than the previous seven years combined.
The offensive output has also jumped. When Rahn took over in 2014, PUC had never averaged more than 65 points per game in a season. Since then they’ve averaged 74, 78 and 77 ppg, respectively.
On the defensive side, he’s cultivated one of the top units in the country this year, ranking third in steals per game (9.9), seventh in defensive rebounds (31.5), and is holding opposing shooters to the 11th-lowest 3-point percentage (32 percent).
“I kept asking myself, ‘There’s got to be a way you can win more than four games in a year – or five games or whatever – from the previous season,’” Rahn said on Monday, referring to the time right after he had been hired. “You’ve just got to get the right people and put in the right system and, luckily for us, that’s happened so far, especially this year. It’s been pretty crazy.”
The Pioneers won the California Pacific Conference championship for the first time in school history last week. They upset top-seeded Cal State Maritime, the five-time defending champs, on their home floor, on a buzzer-beater by Fairfield native Rae Hubbard. It capped a seven-game winning streak that included another upset in the semis two days prior over Benedictine-Mesa – a team they lost to twice in conference play. In fact, the Redhawks were just a few points shy of taking the No. 1 seed in the playoffs over Maritime.
Since cutting down the net in Vallejo, PUC has been on a honeymoon of sorts, getting celebrated by the school during a big gathering on campus Thursday night. They’ve been the talk of the Valley ever since, and it’s been a recurring conversation when people come up to me in public.
My response to them – like many of the players – has focused on Rahn.
“All props to Coach Greg,” Hubbard said to me after the championship. “Without him, this wouldn’t even be close to being possible. He built this program from three years ago to now – it’s incredible, it’s incredible. All praise goes to Coach Greg, easily.”
Rahn’s Path to PUC
The most curious thing to me is how a tiny Seventh-day Adventist school in a town like Angwin, which has zero cell service, no traffic lights and a single gas station that closes when it gets dark, attracted Rahn and the kind of talent he has brought in.
So, let’s look at the circumstances which brought him to Angwin.
Rahn is a Vintage High graduate and played basketball at Napa Valley College before transferring to Cal State Fullerton. However, injuries cut his playing days short.
He stayed in Southern California and coached in numerous capacities for multiple teams at the high school and AAU level, but everything he did was to further his path toward coaching a college team.
Things changed when Rahn’s brother had a little girl. He realized it was time to move closer to home and be a part of her life, so he scoured the area for any coaching work so he could get his foot in the door.
He eventually found an opportunity to join then-head coach Kurt Brower as an assistant for PUC. Despite being a Napa native, Rahn admitted that it was the first time he’d even heard of the school, but he saw it as a perfect fit to be close to his niece and do some college coaching.
Brower later became the athletic director, and Bill Redman took the reins as head coach. Rahn stayed on and was in charge of player development, strength and conditioning, recruiting, and film study. In 2013, circumstances forced Redman to leave in the middle of the season, so Rahn stepped in as the interim coach until Brower returned and helped finish out the season.
When it came time to hire a new head coach, Rahn went for it. With some assistance from the players, women’s coach George Glover and then-assistant athletic director Brittany Brown, Rahn got the break he had been waiting for.
“Without them I may not have had this opportunity,” he said, “so I’m forever grateful for that and that they believed in me because I was 26 or whatever at the time – a young guy – so I understand, to some people, what that might look like.”
‘We’re all human beings’
The young coach immediately began to change the culture of PUC basketball. Rahn had a specific mold of player he was looking for, one that was open to a defensive style and was OK putting the goals of the team ahead of the individual.
But what makes this marriage fascinating is how Rahn has balanced the Seventh-day Adventist theology, which is at the core of everything PUC does, with his desire to make the basketball program more than just a warm body in the conference.
Additionally, what I was most curious about is how he has been able to get prospective players to accept everything that comes with that lifestyle when it’s not the way they were raised.
For Rahn, a noticeably spiritual guy who uses the word “enlightenment” all the time, his pitch to non-Adventist players revolved around being open-minded and respectful.
“We’re all human beings and it’s all the same to me,” he said. “We just respect what their values are; we learn what their values are early in the year. We go to church, and the women’s coach (Glover) and his wife do a really good job of sitting down with us at the beginning of the year and explaining some things so it’s not a shock to the guys. When we recruit, we give them all the information (and lay out the pillars of the faith) … knowing that, at the same time, I’m not going to force these things on you just as the school is not going to force them into anything.”
The evolving and accepting nature of the college made this possible, too. PUC introduced intercollegiate athletics in 1995 as the Adventist faith began to recognize how a different type of competition could sharpen one’s beliefs.
By the time Rahn was an assistant in 2013, the roster featured a fairly even split between Adventist players and those outside the faith.
Even though the ratio has shifted, PUC continues to host tournaments and bring in Adventist schools and players. That’s something that will never change.
Transparency is the biggest thing for Rahn when he’s on the recruiting trail. Adventist colleges consistently provide top-tier educations, so if a recruit outside the faith is willing to embrace it, the opportunity he’s pitching becomes less atypical.
“What’s great with this school is there’s not a whole lot to do; you can’t get in trouble up here,” Rahn said. “So if you’re serious about getting a great education, maybe learning some life values and having enlightenment, and really wanting to get better at basketball, to me, there’s really no better place. Wherever you want to go, you’ve got to drive 30 minutes, 20 minutes – whatever – if you’re going to get in trouble, nine out of 10 times you’d be the one creating it.”
Once he was able to get the nucleus of this championship team – Kwuan Guerrero, Chad Young and Greg Brown – to play for PUC, the groundwork was laid and the Pioneers began to change the narrative surrounding them.
“I always give them credit because they bought in initially, they kind of set that foundation and, now, there’s a lot of players and coaches and stuff reaching out like, ‘Whoa, we like what you do and your style and your players,’” Rahn said. “Then your own players tend to have friends or coaches reach out and it kind of helps the whole recruiting process, so they’re major in helping with that and getting that buy-in from there. As long as we continue to get support from the school and everything, we definitely want to build on this.”
PUC will make its first appearance in the NAIA Championship tournament in Branson, Missouri, Wednesday morning. It’s the culmination of a moment sparked by the school’s decision to join the conference and, a decade later, allowing Rahn to take the helm and create a unique atmosphere that centered on acceptance and competitive pride.
The Pioneers, as the No. 8 seed in the Liston Bracket, will face top-seeded Cornerstone (Mich.), a perennial power eyeing another tournament title.
Rahn sees it as another new experience being checked off the list for his team. His message to the players has been “Don’t let the moment be too big, just be big in the moment and really experience this and love the journey that we’re on.”
In a year of countless firsts, maybe they’ve got another bit of magic left in them.
Regardless, PUC can take pride in the fact that every decision it has made over the past few decades has resulted in this accomplishment, especially the one that allowed Rahn, in his all black getup and neon green bow-tie, to lead its basketball team.
“I feel very blessed and honored, and it’s been a great opportunity,” he said. “It’s one of those things, you don’t want it to end, the way these guys came together and worked this year. You hope to keep it moving and to build on it for the next seasons to come.”