10 Questions with Russ Rose

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to sit down for a few minutes with Women’s Volleyball Coach Russ Rose. Having grown up in a volleyball family, Coach Rose has always been somewhat of an idol for me. Being able to ask him some questions was pretty awesome. But enough of me waxing poetic here, let’s get down to the good stuff.

Onward State: How did you first become involved in volleyball?

Russ Rose: I became involved in volleyball when I went to college with the intention of being a basketball coach and happened to go to a school called George Williams College, doesn’t exist any longer, and it happened to be a school that was very good in volleyball. Just randomly got involved in volleyball because of that. I never took a volleyball class before I got to college, so I transitioned from basketball to volleyball while I was there. I just took a couple classes and learned how to play and was on the team and had terrific mentors that were open to sharing their passion for the game with people who knew nothing about the game. That’s really how I got into volleyball.

OS: You took over the Head Coaching position at Penn State in 1979, only 3 years into the team’s existence. What made you pick Penn State?

RR:  You know, when I first graduated from college I applied for jobs and had difficulty getting a job because you needed to have a master’s degree. I didn’t have a master’s degree. And at that point in time everybody said you needed a master’s degree so from my point of view I needed to get a master’s degree. So I contacted a few schools that talked about getting a teaching assistantship or a coaching assistantship to alleviate the cost of graduate school. So I went to Nebraska and coached and I had a teaching assistantship, part time coached, and after a year and a half, I completed my master’s degree in the first year, I stayed the second year and taught classes, was a volleyball coach for the fall.

After that I was looking for job opportunities, and I interviewed at a couple of places and Penn State was one of those places. I liked the idea of being at a school that was, at that time, the number one phys ed school in the country and I was a phys ed guy. I had two degrees in physical education and some of the books I had used as an undergrad or used in grad school and some of them were authored by professors here. So I thought going to Penn State was going to be a great thing professionally, not coaching-wise, just having the chance to talk with leaders in the field. Exercise physiology, we have some of the top guys in exercise physiology. Biomechanics, Pete Cavanagh and Dick Nelson were the top names in Biomechanics at that time. Dorothy Harris in Sports Psychology was one of the leading people in Sports Psychology, Bob Chirstina and Dan Landers in Motor Learning, I mean these guys were writing the books and I thought, wow it’d be a cool place to go.

But I was 25 years old, I didn’t have any idea what was necessary to be a volleyball coach, I mean I knew volleyball, but I didn’t know all of the things that in the end were going to be really important for me to pick up for sure. So I looked around and came to Penn State, and it wasn’t that the program was funded that well, or that there was anything. It was Penn State, it was a job, I mean, a little more money than I was getting paid doing the things I was doing. That’s how I came to Penn State.

OS: You’ve become known for “the look” that you give your players when they make a mistake. Is that something you do consciously?

RR: I think I have multiple looks for multiple things they do. I think that when they do things that are great I probably have a welcoming look, that they’re doing the things they’re supposed to be doing and they should feel great about doing that. It’s nice to share that with them. When they do something stupid, I’m probably shaking my head wondering what are you thinking when you do things like that. When they do things that are bad for the culture of the team I have a totally different look, and then when things are really bad  I don’t have to look at them at all because I let them go do something else.

OS: You’ve essentially built a powerhouse on the East Coast when volleyball is viewed more as a west coast sport. How were you able to recruit players to a school in the northeast in the middle of a valley when they could have gone to a school with sunshine and beaches?

RR: Well certainly 31 years later, we’ve really established a great tradition, a long term successful program, and that’s a great question, how do you get people to go to a school? Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the best kids really did want to go to California and most of them did. In the middle 80s and 90s and now, the kids want to go where they’re going to play, they want to go to good schools, they want to go to programs that are going to help them professionally, have a future in their academic area, give them some sort of opportunity for greatness through the sport.

The West Coast teams are still very strong, but there are strong schools all over the country, and we happen to be one of them. I’m proud that we’ve been able to attract and have the success we’ve had at Penn State in volleyball because the state of women’s volleyball in Pennsylvania is not great. It’s certainly better in the boy’s side than it is on the girls side. So that has been what I’ve been most proud of because I don’t have the luxury of just saying, I’m just going to get the best kids in the state every year and we’re going to be really good. It’s hard to do that. But I mean there’s still a lot of kids that would like to go to the sunshine and the beaches, but they can do that during break, they all do.

OS: The undertone towards the end of this season was the winning streak, how were you able to keep the team focused on each individual game, as opposed to the streak as a whole?

RR: The group was very mature about this season, they didn’t look at the streak. When we had interviews and people would ask about the streak we would have to answer about the streak but we were never talking about the streak. We were never saying, we’ve got this great streak going, let’s keep it going forever, because nothing’s forever. I think that they recognized, at least how I identified as it was 3 streaks. We had a streak 3 years ago after we lost at Stanford we won the rest of our matches and won the National Championship in 2007. The team we had in 2008 was a juggernaut of a team, we had an entire season without losing a game during the regular season. We ran into a very good Nebraska team at Nebraska that stretched us and tested us and then we won that match and beat Stanford again for the National Championship.

Then this year was a team that was kind of coming back after losing 2 players to the national team. I mean Nicole Fawcett was the National Player of the Year and Christa Harmotto easily could have been the Player of the Year. So we lost two of the top kids in the country, but we had a good core in Alisha Glass and Megan Hodge, two of the finest players at their position in the country and they stepped up in the main role and were able to get it done. So we didn’t really talk about the streak because the goal is to win the National Championship, the goal is not to have a long streak. I would rather win the National Championship than go undefeated and lose in the finals.

So this group was fortunate that they kept their heads on straight and were fortunate to stay healthy and that they were at least willing to do the bare minimum to play well as a group. There were some bumpy sports there for sure but they hung in there well.

OS: These past three seasons have been filled with unparalleled successes, what do you think made those successes possible?

RR: The players. It’s all about the players. You can’t win without the talent and we had great players. The 2008 team I thought we were better at every position against every team we played, except there were a couple matches where maybe there was a tie [laughs]. So we were really just a strong team that had great energy. Christa Harmotto was just an energizer that kept things going for her 4 years.

But I think that it’s about players, you can’t have a successful program without support from the University, the school itself. We’re fortunate that they support the program, support the staff. We’ve got a great staff, and again, if you stay healthy, you’ve got a shot. Christa’s freshman year she blew out her ACL and that ended the season’s prospects for greatness, and we could have been great too. We could have had a little better run, but injuries are part of the game and we were unable to overcome that injury. The other teams we lost to were better than us.

OS: The Men’s volleyball team has also been very successful in recent years, what’s the relationship like between the two teams?

RR: Well, I think it’s a relationship that’s very positive with all of the sports. We have dinner tonight with the women’s basketball team where we’ll share some of our voyage for them. On Saturday we’re doing something with women’s gymnastics. I look at it as it’s Penn State, and I want all of the teams to be successful.

One of the relationships that exist that’s good because of the two volleyball teams is that when we’re out of season they’re in season and the girls have a little more motivation to work because they see how athletic the guys are. The guys play a different game than the women play, but our women play a game much different than a lot of other women’s teams, because I’m more aligned towards the men’s game with them. But I had the luxury of having great athletes that were bigger and stronger and it made it a little different. We’ll see how it goes over the next couple of years as we transition in new players.

But it’s a good relationship. A number of players married members of the men’s team and a couple of the players are now dating members of the men’s team and maybe some of the other teams too, but for sure a couple of the men’s players.

OS: The NCAA recently voted to add Beach Volleyball to their list of “emerging sports” setting up the possibility for schools to add teams. Do you think that Penn State will field a team and how do you think that will affect recruiting for the indoor team?

RR: That’s a great question about beach volleyball, sand volleyball. I wasn’t in favor of it, not that I’m not in favor of sand volleyball, I think beach volleyball is great, you know Misty May and Kerri Walsh, the light they shine so bright winning the last two gold medals, and the men winning gold medals in beach volleyball and indoor volleyball has provided some of the greatest excitement for a sport out there. Sand volleyball in Pennsylvania in the Winter/Spring doesn’t have a great lure, that doesn’t even sound great, doesn’t make me think that it’s something I can run, that I really want to be a part of and spend a lot of energy on. It’ll be interesting, will it hurt recruiting? We’ll see. I think they’re going to table it for a year and it may come to pass in 2011.

I’d like to think that, as I’ve felt all along, it’s a great choice for Southern California. Why doesn’t SC (USC) and UCLA have men’s hockey and women’s hockey? Maybe they don’t have the interest, maybe they don’t have the facilities, although the Kings, the LA hockey team, they have good  followership [sic]. But fandom is different than participation. For us to have beach volleyball here doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I think it’d be great if the schools in California had it and they can increase the pool of players if there were 10 schools that had 8 kids and there’s 80 kids playing it all the time that’s an incredibly large pool for future olympic participation and national team things. We’ll see how it spreads out across the country.

The Big 10 wasn’t really in favor of it. If I was at Northwestern I might be more in favor of it because at least we’re on the lakefront and Lake Michigan, although it’s probably negative 30 degrees a good bit of the time. So we’ll see. How will it affect recruiting? I think we’ll have to wait and see. We’ve talked to some players and they’ve asked if we’re going to have a team and I’ve tap danced around my position on it, that I’m in favor of it, but maybe not at Penn State.

OS: During the games, it’s hard to really get a sense of who the players are. They’re so athletically gifted, it’s easy to forget that they all have unique personalities and interest. Who comes to mind as a goofball? Who lightens the mood?

RR: We’ve got some very very funny girls and I would say all of them share in lightening the mood. All of them are comfortable being who they are and I am a big advocate of that. I think people should be who they are, you shouldn’t change for anybody, if they don’t like who you are then find somebody who does. That doesn’t mean that they have free reign to do what ever they want, but certainly when they are amongst each other I think so.

The girls that seem to make everybody laugh, I think Katie Kabbes seems to have that impact on people, as does Heather Tice who seems to be a very funny girl and Marika [Racibarskas] as a freshman, but I think all of them in their own special ways. Some of them are serious and get a real feel for them being real funny and crazy, where the kids on the end of the bench are real crazy and that’s because they’re on the sideline and they have the opportunity to do that.

I think that all of them are terrific young people all with bright futures and they’re fun and not that practices are always fun and enjoyable, but off the court I think they’re great kids that are fun to be around and people who watch them should embrace them because they’re fun, and I think that each and every one of them are special in their own way. Some of them are more comfortable in certain settings, Alicia Glass probably could walk into any group and sit down and be a part of it better than some people, but in their own way I think they’re all good kids.

OS: Last question, if you could be any dinosaur, which one would you be and why?

RR: Well you know, people refer to me as a dinosaur, so I don’t know enough about dinosaurs to answer that question without some sort of education. Some people, if I answered that, would go, “the guy doesn’t know anything about dinosaurs!” Obviously, I don’t know anything about dinosaurs. I have 4 sons, and I think they liked dinosaurs and could answer that question probably better than I could. I like being a dinosaur in the sport of volleyball. I do it my way and I respect the new people and I respect certain things but I’m holding tough on the things that I believe are critical to being a good volleyball team. I’ve been fortunate that they players respond to that.

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About the Author

Chase Tralka

Chase Tralka is a Senior majoring in Information Sciences and Technology with a minor in Security and Risk Analysis. He is from Northern New Jersey and is involved in far too many organizations to list here. He enjoys photography, cycling, and listening to obscure free jazz music.

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