Scott Pera is a NCAA Division 1 head coach at Rice University. He started his basketball coaching career in Lebanon County. We take a look at his career from JV coach at Palmyra to becoming a D1 head coach in the American Athletic Conference.
Humble beginnings at Palmyra
Scott Pera’s basketball coaching career started in Lebanon County. Upon graduating from Penn State Harrisburg in the early 1990s, he was offered the position of boys JV head coach at Palmyra High School under the direction of varsity head coach Mike Gaffey.
Pera coached the Cougars for one season before joining Elizabethtown College men’s basketball as an assistant coach. But after just one campaign with the Blue Jays, Pera returned to Palmyra to be the JV coach yet again for two more seasons.
“I thought I wanted to coach college,” said Pera. “Everyone saying ‘Oh, you’re gonna rise in the business,’ and be this and do all that. I missed high school.”
After three seasons across four years at Palmyra, Pera made a less than seven-mile move east in Lebanon County to continue his basketball coaching career.
Leader of the Dutchmen
While Pera was leading the Palmyra JV squad, another Lebanon County high school boys basketball team was experiencing great success just down the road.
Under the guidance of head coach Steve Eshleman, Annville-Cleona advanced to the PIAA Class AA state championship game in 1995. The Dutchmen lost to Shady Side Academy to finish as state runner-up.
Pera shared a unique relationship with Eshleman.
“(Eshleman) was my Little League baseball coach in Hershey,” said Pera. “He was also my seventh-grade basketball coach at Hershey.
“Then the (A-C) job opened. I had high interest in it. … They hired me. They took a chance on a young, wild, 27-year-old coach.”
His first season at Annville-Cleona was successful but ended in heartbreak.
“We were the No. 1 seed going into the (PIAA District 3 Tournament) and we lost to Tulpehocken, the No. 16 seed,” said Pera. “It was a rough beginning.”
The Dutchmen would suffer first-round district tournament losses in each of the next two campaigns. But that set up a season that will forever be remembered in Lebanon County.
The 1998-1999 season can be summed up easily.
“It was magical,” said Pera.
Annville-Cleona had a talented group led by superstar Mark Linebaugh, Isaac Custer, Tim Fogelsanger, Mark Brandt, Matt Kleinfelter, and Brett Barlet.
The Dutchmen were determined to make up for previous years’ postseason disappointment. They did that and a whole lot more.
“From a team perspective, understanding the connectivity of that group, how everybody unselfishly did what they needed to do was truly about the group,” said Linebaugh. “You look back and reflect and that really was a special team.”
“I have lived all over the country and I have told the stories many, many times,” said Pera. “You almost have to break out the clippings to show them what actually occurred.”
A-C went 14-0 in Lancaster-Lebanon League play and claimed the Section 3 crown. The Dutchmen finished as Class AA District 3 runner-up after losing in the final to York Catholic.
“Then the magic happened,” said Pera.
The Dutchmen defeated Williams Valley and GAR Memorial in the first two rounds of the PIAA Class AA state tournament. In the state quarterfinals, A-C took on Reading Central Catholic at Warwick High School.
“We have this unbelievable victory,” said Pera.
With zero seconds remaining on the clock, Annville-Cleona trailed RCC by three. Game over, right? Not quite.
A-C junior guard Mark Brandt drilled three consecutive free throws to tie the game with no time remaining. The Dutchmen went on to win in overtime, 54-51.
Annville-Cleona then advanced to the Class AA state final after beating St. Pius X in the state semifinals. That set up another magical moment against Quaker Valley in the state championship game.
“Isaac Custer had to make a free throw to send that game to overtime with no time on the clock,” said Pera. “You’re talking about two Saturdays, back-to-back with no time on the clock, we were losing both games and we ended up winning them both.”
Linebaugh added: “That’s just stuff you can’t make up. For those guys … being able to step up in those moments and make those plays, it’s something you’ll never forget.”
After Custer’s heroics in regulation, A-C went on to win its first-ever state championship by defeating Quaker Valley, 69-57, in double overtime. Custer scored 18 points while Linebaugh poured in 33.
The Dutchmen finished the 1998-99 season with a 30-3 overall record.
“Go West, young man”
When Pera led Annville-Cleona to its state title, he was a man in his early 30s. Like many men at that age, his next move was decided by someone else.
“It was a girl,” said Pera. “I had met a girl from Palmyra who had moved to California and we were dating. … She left and we thought, OK, maybe we like each other more than we thought.”
After winning a state title at A-C, Pera proposed to his future wife Alyssa in Las Vegas.
He returned to Annville and coached the Dutchmen to a state quarterfinal appearance in 2000. Then it was time to move west.
“We would get married, pack up the car and drive to California and that’s what we did,” said Pera.
Pera and his wife will celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary in June. They have two daughters, Sydney and Brynn.
Coaching a Hall of Famer
While Pera moved across the country to a new state, he continued his high school basketball coaching career.
Pera landed the head coaching job at Artesia High School in Lakewood, California. There he would coach one of the best scorers in the history of basketball.
“Summer of 2003 is when I met James Harden,” said Pera.
Harden is a shoe-in to make the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, was named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team, voted NBA MVP of the 2017-18 season, is a 10-time NBA all-star, and has led the league in scoring three times.
But before he became an NBA superstar, Harden attended Artesia and played under the guidance of Pera. The head coach admits he didn’t foresee what his star pupil would become, at least not at first.
“He was a kid that came to Artesia that wanted to play basketball,” said Pera. “He didn’t stand out that much … but he could shoot. As time went on I could see that he had some instincts.”
Pera continued: “As a freshman, he made varsity. Then halfway through the freshman year, he started varsity. Then I started to see some things after his freshman year … by the time he became a junior, I thought all right, he’s really good.”
Harden’s junior year was a special one for the Artesia program. The squad went 33-1 and won a California state title.
At that point Pera owned a 258-65 overall record (.799 winning percentage) as a high school head coach. It was time for a new challenge.
NCAA Division 1 assistant coach
Pera’s next step was to become a NCAA Division 1 assistant coach at Arizona State University. A move made possible by connections he gained coaching in California and the Los Angeles area.
“My whole life changed moving to LA,” said Pera. “Relationships is how I got the job.
Pera spent six seasons as an assistant at ASU, where he would again coach Harden. His next stop came back in the Keystone State, when he joined the Penn Quakers as an assistant coach.
After two years at Penn, Pera was on the move again. He left for Houston, Texas, to join the men’s basketball program at Rice University under the guidance of head coach Mike Rhoades, a graduate of Lebanon Valley College.
Rhoades would coach Rice from 2014 to 2017 before taking over as the head coach at VCU. When Rhoades left Rice, Pera had a decision to make.
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Becoming the head coach at Rice
“I was done being an assistant (coach),” Pera.
Pera had the opportunity to move with Rhoades and stay as an assistant coach. He decided to remain in Houston and put his name in the hat for the now-open Rice head coaching position.
Pera got the job and took over as the leader of the Owls prior to the 2017-18 season.
“I missed being a head coach,” said Pera. “If I wouldn’t have gotten the Rice job, I am not sure what I would’ve done. I probably would’ve looked for somewhere where I would be a head coach again.”
The Owls have experienced success under Pera. He has led the program to 15+ wins four times, including a 19-win season and appearance in the CBI Quarterfinals in 2022-23.
“You just appreciate the people who put trust in you and you try and give back in ways and pay it forward to people,” said Pera. “I’m lucky to still be sitting in this seat and I don’t take it for granted.”
350 career wins
Pera reached a career milestone earlier this season and it came in his home state. When Rice earned a 69-66 victory at Temple on Jan. 20, it marked Pera’s 350th career win between his high school and college head coaching career.
“You coach for a long time, you coach a lot of really good players, you eventually win a lot of games,” said Pera. “That’s what has happened. I am very fortunate and appreciative to…all the staff that has worked with me, the players that have played for me. We all share in any milestone like that and hopefully my players feel that.”
The victory over Temple was also the first-ever American Athletic Conference win for Rice. Pera and the Owls have since picked up win No. 351 and No. 352 with victories over Memphis and UTSA (as of February 5).
Information from Rice University Athletics, Basketball Reference, Lebanon Daily News, PIAA.org, and “Fifty Years of Lancaster-Lebanon League Boys’ Basketball” was used in this story.
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