Russ Rose started at Penn State in 1979 and has built a dynasty in the years since
NCAA • Lee Feinswog • 12/20/14
Penn State coach Russ Rose, left, talks to his team during a timeout in the NCAA women's volleyball tournament championship match against BYU in Oklahoma City, Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014. The Nittany Lions defeated BYU to claim the program's 7th national title and sixth in the last eight years. (Sue Ogrocki, AP / AP)
That first season, in 1979, Russ Rose made $14,000 as the Penn State women’s volleyball head coach.
“I just turned 25,” Rose recalled. “I was happy I got a job. I didn't know what I didn't know. I didn't have an office. I didn't have a telephone, I didn't have anything. I had 16 or 18 classes to teach a year, no assistant coach. I thought I had a good deal.”
Penn State, as it turns out, had a good deal.
The 1979 Nittany Lions finished 32-9 and were not invited to the postseason, but Rose nonetheless got a raise.
A $400 raise.
“I was feeling good,” Rose said.
He’s feeling better now. Penn State plays BYU on Saturday night for the national title in the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship, and regardless of the outcome Rose has established himself as the greatest coach the women’s game has ever known.
Now, three weeks past his 61st birthday, Rose leads everyone with six NCAA crowns.
The next closest? Two have four national titles: John Dunning won two at Pacific and two more at Stanford, which got sent home by Penn State on Thursday in the semifinals, and his predecessor, Don Shaw, who won four at Stanford.
What’s more, Rose still teaches at Penn State.
“It’s an ethics and issues of athletic coaching, which I usually start with a disclaimer for the students,” Rose cracked.
These days Rose doesn’t have to disclaim anything. As he finishes his 36th year in Happy Valley, life is good. His four boys are grown, he makes way more than $14,400, and perennially has the team to beat in women’s college volleyball.
Penn State finally broke through and won it all in 1999.
Then the Nittany Lions put together the best run ever, winning four in a row from 2007-10.
In 2012 Rose’s team caught a bad break when setter Micha Hancock tore up her ankle in the national semifinal in Louisville. Without Hancock being herself, Oregon moved on to the championship match, losing to Texas.
Then last year, led by Hancock, Penn State won it all again.
There are competitive, driven people in sports. Few could match the intensity point-in and point-out that Hancock generates. Conversely, it’s hard to imagine a coach with higher standards and more pointed sarcasm than Rose.
Love-hate between Hancock—on Friday named the AVCA National Player of the Year—and Rose would be an understatement at times in those first two and half years.
When she made her visit to Penn State, Hancock recalled Rose telling her, “It’s going to be a challenge. You’re probably going to hate me for your career here, but I’m going to make you a really good player.”
Her response was simple: “Sure. I’m on board.”
Not that she always liked it.
“There were times when I was like, ‘OK, you’re putting a lot of pressure on me when you’re saying things that don’t exactly help me on the court,’ but he did it to make me tough and I always took it with a grain of salt.”
“I think I’ve understood him more than a lot of players do because he’s always just trying to get the best out of me and I’ve always kept that in mind when he’s being kind of jerk,” Hancock said.
“That’s the great thing about him, especially now that he knows I’m leaving. He’s got a soft spot for me now, maybe because of my toughness and hard work. He’s a little nicer now.”
Rose claims that now that his top assistant returned to the program, he simply turns his complaints with Hancock over to Salima (Davidson) Rockwell, who also set for Rose and was a 1996 Olympic alternate.
Not every player has that luxury.
“Sometimes it can be hard, because he expects the best out of you and he wants the best out of you at all times, but when you take a step back and look at it, you wouldn't want it any other way,” senior libero Dominique Gonzalez said. “As a college athlete, you want somebody to drive you every day and make you better. And I appreciate that.”
Gonzalez remembered the first time she met Rose. She was 14 and she said Rose asked her, “What's your best skill, passing, setting, or winning?”
She pondered it and, “I said I'd like to win.”
And win he does.
On paper, you would have to think that the Nittany Lions (35-3) of the Big Ten would be favored to beat upstart BYU (30-4).
BYU of the West Coast Conference might lead the nation in blocking, have 6-foot-7 wrecking crew Jennifer Hamson, and victories over Arizona, Florida State, Nebraska, and Texas to make the final. But Penn State, led by Hancock with so many weapons at her disposal, has won 19 matches in a row. That includes beating top-seeded Stanford on Thursday a couple of hours after BYU shocked the Longhorns.
BYU’s coach, fun-loving coach Shawn Olmstead, is almost half Rose’s age at 36.
“I mean, it's remarkable what he's done. And he deserves all the recognition that he gets in this sport and Penn State's been synonymous with success at this level and winning national championships and competing year in, year out,” Olmstead said.
“I understand that. And so we're excited.”
But he only took that so far.
“These kids aren't going to back down from a name or from a brand. They'll compete with anybody. And they're going to see that's an outstanding program over there, but we're not going to get caught up in that.
“Give Russ all the credit he deserves, and I think very fondly of him. And he's been very complimentary of BYU and [former coach] Elaine Michaelis, and of others that have come before myself.
“So we're excited to just match up with him and understand when the ball gets tossed up for the first serve, it's volleyball. It's not anything other than that. And so we'll compete that way.”
You would expect nothing less, but one thing to consider is that Rose, a member of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, almost did his postgraduate work at BYU, the Mormon school.
“I was accepted at BYU to get my EdD,” Rose said. “I received a teaching assistantship. I was ready to go. I met with the resident bishop and then I got the Penn State job. Do you remember Glenn Potter, former basketball coach at BYU, anybody? That was my guy. Just a long time ago. You guys are young guys.
“I had it all worked out. And then the Penn State job came along and I'm a big sports guy. And I'm a huge fan of Coach [Joe] Paterno. And being a physical educator, we had some of the top physical educators teaching at Penn State. I thought it was really cool to go to a place where I had read their books.
“And I've been there for 36 years.”
In that time he’s compiled some staggering accomplishments:
— He’s a five-time AVCA Division I Coach of the Year, an award won this year by Olmstead
— He’s in the AVCA Hall of Fame
— The graduate of George Williams has an overall coaching record of 1,160-180
— And he owns the most victories of any coach in Division I women's volleyball history
“It's all about what the players do,” Rose said. “I've been fortunate that the university has allowed me to be who I am. And I haven't had to play games to make other people happy, that I could do my job the way I want to do it.”
The greatest resume the college game has ever known.
“Absolutely. I know who I’m in the gym with,” Hancock said. “And I never take that for granted.”
She smiled again.
“People are scared of Coach. I tell them he’s just a big teddy bear. He’s a great guy and more fun-loving and sarcastic that you would ever believe.”