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Russ Rose: The Man Behind The Dynasty

It’s 3 a.m. on a Monday. While most of the world is fast asleep, Russ Rose’s day is about to begin. He knows all of his accolades he’s garnered aren’t earned without hard work. For 36 years, seven days a week, he’s given his all to help his women’s volleyball team and his university reach its full potential, and he’s shown no sign of slowing down.

After starting his day before dawn, he checks his e-mail, reads one or two chapters of a book, and then heads to his office in Rec Hall. He walks past the seven National Championship trophies and countless conference awards. The time to celebrate those victories is long gone. Ask any great coach, especially at the college level, and he’ll tell you the same thing: There is no offseason. Rose gets to his office and is constantly reading, researching, and recruiting to make his team the best it can be — a mentality his whole coaching philosophy has been built around.

Following a morning filled with hard work, Rose takes his well-earned lunch break. He sits on a bench outside Rec Hall and enjoys a cigar while watching joggers pass by. The time for leisure passes quickly; it’s practice time. He’s excited for the upcoming season and the improvement of his team, though attendance has been lacking recently (pinkeye has taken out a lot of his players, or so they say).

It’s easy to defend his players though. Four months ago, they swept BYU in the National Championship. Rose knows better than anyone the amount of hard work they put in last season, but he’s also the first to criticize them. Like any good coach, he knows how to balance earning their admiration with not being afraid to speak his mind when he wants change. Winning means a lot to the program of course, but for him, it’s secondary to building a bond with the team and the community. Sound familiar?

“One of the reasons I came to Penn State was because there was a great sports guy, Joe Paterno,” Rose proudly recalled. “I like so much about Joe. He was not just loyal, he cared about everybody, he knew people’s names, he had an incredible memory… I didn’t see him in his preparation as a football coach, but as a fundraiser, he was a rock star.

“I pick up a lot from coaches that have been here, good and bad,” he added. “Administrators that have been here, good and bad. There’s a lot of lessons if you want to learn a lesson. If you’ve got your eyes open and your ears open and you’re not afraid to take chances, I think that’s what life’s about.”

A self-described “loyal employee,” Rose meets with key Penn State figures often, always doing what he can to maximize his impact on the University. In the last month alone, he’s sat down with two other head coaches and leaders in the Smeal College of Business. He has a grasp of the sport that only an elite echelon of coaches can claim to own – coaches like Paterno or others he admires, such as UConn women’s basketball’s Geno Auriemma, Tennessee women’s basketball’s Pat Summitt, and North Carolina women’s soccer’s Anson Dorrance.

Rose’s passion for volleyball began when he went to George Williams College (which is now a branch of Aurora University) in Downers Grove, Illinois after spending his childhood in Chicago. Already a huge sports fan, Rose enrolled expecting to coach basketball after graduation. He played volleyball at George Williams, and decided then to follow in the footsteps of his coach, Jim Coleman. Coleman coached the United States’ Olympic Volleyball team in 1968 before diving into the “volleyball culture” at George Williams. Rose was named captain of the team in his senior year, and then was a part-time coach for the next two years.

After his time at George Williams came to an end, he moved on to be the defensive coach at the University of Nebraska while earning his master’s degree and writing his thesis on statistics. The well-rounded young adult made the move to Penn State soon after, where he combined his passions of volleyball and statistics to create one of the most consistently successful head coaching tenures anyone’s ever enjoyed.

“I like statistics, I think the Kenpom guy has got some good information in basketball. I’m not allowed to gamble but I like how good the prognosticators are in Vegas at putting together point spreads, these guys are really good at what they do,” Rose said. “If some guy with glasses and coffee stains all over his shirt can pick out who’s supposed to win and lose in certain sports, it means that coaches should be a lot better at what they’re doing. I like statistics, I did my thesis on statistics, but I also have a degree in Sports Psychology and I might think that the statistics, most of those things are done by people who have never played the game.”

Like Paterno, Rose understands that to his players and community, he’s much more than a coach. He ignores his countless accolades, saying that consistently having top recruiting classes and high national rankings are “just media, just people trying to write something.” While numbers do play an important role in his philosophies, he maintains a simple mantra that all that matters is being the best that you can be, and he never shies away from sharing his wisdom.

“Life is simple, you’re either in or you’re out,” he said. “You try and find kids that want to be really good, and you want to help them with the limited time you have together and the limited time they have to try and achieve something special. That’s how I look at it.”

“The goal is when you make a mistake, put your hand up to your teammate’s, look them in the eye, and acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake,” he added. “That the mistake was by being aggressive, and not some lack of preparation, or you never thought you’d have to play and now you do and you’re not ready. That’s one of the illnesses young people have, is that they don’t reach for the stars. It’s what they should do.”

russ rose smokin
Rose at Nicole Fawcett’s house during a road trip to Ohio State, doing his two favorite things: smoking a cigar and being outdoors. “I had a cigar and they said, ‘You gotta hold a gun with two hands,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Really? Because on TV these guys pull out a gun with one hand and jam people up.’”

A Russ Rose-coached team is unique in its dominance. He said he’s coached a few teams at Penn State that were more like men’s teams than women’s. Dave Shoji, the head coach at the University of Hawaii, has the second-most all-time wins, and according to Rose, the two have played opposite styles in the past – a testament to how dynamic volleyball can be. While Shoji’s teams have garnered reputations for being smaller and playing staunch defense, Rose has been all about size, skill, speed, and power.

“In sports and in life, there’s a lot of ways to win and a lot of ways to lose,” he elaborated in the typical, wise Russ Rose fashion. “Some things are in your control and some things aren’t. Some people lose because of omission and they don’t do everything they can to get better and the goal is to try to find a group of people that want to be the best and work hard all the time.”

Rose’s overwhelming humility means he’ll be one of the last people to acknowledge all of his honors, but they help to paint the picture of the legacy he’ll one day leave behind. In 36 seasons at Penn State, Rose’s teams have gone a combined 1,161-180, which is good for an .866 winning percentage, the highest in NCAA history. The number of wins and the winning percentage are both the highest marks in Penn State history across every sport. Since the American Volleyball Coaches Association began giving out the Women’s National Coach of the Year Award in 1982, Rose has won it five times – no other coach has won more than two. He was inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame in 2007, was named Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year six times in seven years, and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year 14 times. All of that, coupled with 24 conference championships and seven national championships, speaks volumes to his raw talent and understanding of the sport – but if you ask him or those who know him, you’ll understand that what he’s most proud of is the lives he’s been able to positively impact, not the trophies.

hancock and rose - nate billings, the oklahoman
Micha Hancock and Russ Rose share an emotional embrace after winning the 2014 National Championship. (Photo: Nate Billings/The Oklahoman)

“The years that we lost stand out more than the years we won. I’m not sure that those seven championships were the seven best teams I’ve had in the 36 years I’ve been here. Sometimes what makes a good team is everybody working together, and everybody caring and everybody making it an enjoyable experience, and those people going on to be productive citizens,” Rose said. “Other teams might have more success with people who didn’t embrace the opportunity to grow and be a teammate and be a mentor and great representative, and some people care a little more about themselves than the name on the front of the jersey.”

“The job of the coach is to try and shape the package so that it’s shiny on the outside and working hard on the inside. That’s not the easiest thing to do, but I don’t know. I don’t ever say the goal’s to win a championship or the goal’s to go undefeated or the goal’s to… Hey, the goal’s to get better,” he added. “The goal’s to be a better person. You can’t guarantee success, you just want to guarantee that everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing and everyone knows what their responsibilities are and they know their roles.”

This upcoming season will be more of the same. Whether or not Coach Rose will acknowledge it, the fans in “Happy Volley” will have one thing on their minds all season, and that’s the three-peat. Stars like Micha Hancock and Nia Grant have moved on, as have key role players Dominique Gonzalez (who Rose thought should have been the MVP of last year’s Final Four) and Lacey Fuller (“She always played as hard as she possibly could… I don’t have a lot of players I say that about.”) With players like actual Final Four-MVP Megan Courtney and to-be sophomore Haleigh Washington likely to see increased roles, the talent will be in place. And even if it wasn’t, a Russ Rose-coached team will be a perennial contender. Still, he doesn’t limit where he’d like the production to come from to two players – when asked who he wants to see step up, he had a simple answer: “Everyone that has a number.”

With the 61-year-old coach holding every record and having established himself in Penn State lore forever, the question becomes, how much more does he have in him?

“If I had an entire team of kids that were not committed and dodging the truth and really willing to represent the jersey the way it should be represented, I’d probably look for something else to do…. I don’t think I’m at that. I’m not what I was in 1979 when I could hit the balls and jump around and be better than all the players,” he said. “I might have been better in my past at having tact on my delivery but I still think the truth is the best remedy to going from point A to point B. I’m 61-years-old right now, so I’ve certainly had to change my approach to how I do things, but I still have a lot of drive for the team to be good and for Penn State to be the best that it can be in all the sports.”

To the Penn State faithful and fans of the sport spread across the nation, another championship seems like a certainty, and the previous seven can be easy to take for granted. It’s been said before, and it’ll likely be said again – the only three guarantees in life are death, taxes, and Russ Rose. The coach himself doesn’t like to think that way though, and prefers as always to stay grounded with his thoughts for next season.

“I have no idea. I didn’t pick the team the last two years to win the national championship, but we had a real intangible…,” he said as his voice trailed off, and understandably so. The aura surrounding his teams is indescribable.

“Micha was a game-changer type player, Dom was an incredible under-appreciated player outside of the program, Nia led the nation in hitting and did some great things, and Lacey was a kid from the minute she came in the gym until her last day with our program. Those four people had a pretty significant impact. We’ll see how we can compensate for their moving on in their lives, but the goal should be to be the best we can be anyways. I think that’s what life’s about.”

Photo: Mark Selders/GoPSUSports

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About the Author

Doug Leeson

Doug is a sophomore and Onward State's Assistant Managing Editor. Dislikes: popcorn, Rutgers, and a low #TimberCount. Likes: "Frozen," Rec Hall, and you. Contact him via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @DougLeeson.

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