As he starts the middle of his fourth decade as Penn State’s head coach, Russ Rose is just a couple of months from turning 60. During his time in State College, his program has won five NCAA championships, including four in a row from 2007-2010.
He and his wife, Lori, have been married 27 years and they have four sons, ranging in age from 25 to 19. Rose started coaching as an assistant at his alma mater, George Williams, where as a player he won the 1974 NAIA national title. He then was an assistant coach at Nebraska while earning his master’s before taking over at Penn State.
Rose is a member of both the AVCA and National Jewish Sports halls of fame, ranks No. 1 in winning percentage among all active Division I coaches, and his teams have appeared in 32 consecutive NCAA tournaments. The list of former Nittany Lions is a Who’s Who of All-Americans and national team members.
Rose has always done things his way, from not being afraid to bench star players to speaking his mind. Those who know him well appreciate his sarcastic wit and sense of humor and opponents know they had better be open for business when they play Penn State.
VBM visited with Rose in Austin, Texas, during the Nike Big Four when the Nittany Lions lost in five to host Texas and then swept Florida.
VBM: Thirty-five years. How do you keep up the energy, the enthusiasm, the want to do it after that long?
Rose: The want is always there. I may not have the enthusiasm that a lot of the young coaches have, but I’m not sure that I was a rah-rah guy at the start of the day. So the ability to try to lead is not all about how much emotion you can expend as a human. It’s about leadership.
VBM: What makes you a good leader?
Rose: Some would say I’m not. I don’t know.
VBM: For argument’s sake, let’s say you are.
Rose: For argument’s sake, I’ve held people up to accountable and responsible for things they can do and be in an environment where they can learn and work hard. Those are things that I think you have to be able to do.
VBM: What do you say when you get to the living room to talk to a kid and her parents?
Rose: Recruiting has changed so much. You really don’t get to that point where you’re in a living room talking to people. Kids commit so much earlier now that you really don’t find yourself in that situation. Which is good, because a lot of people’s success in recruiting is telling kids one thing, well, I think I’m pretty consistent and pretty honest with the things I always say. Maybe not having to go into the home and saying something when other coaches are saying ‘Your kid’s the greatest and she’s gonna start and she’s gonna get X number of sets.’
I just say this is what Penn State is while I’m there and you’re going to have a chance to be treated fair and compete and I think the players get better and they enjoy the opportunities at our university.”
VBM: What would you change about the recruiting process if you were the NCAA and could wave a magic wand?
Rose: I think the NCAA has so many more problems, I wouldn’t even get into the recruiting issue. Certainly the early commits are a problem, but the NCAA has more challenges than worrying about recruiting in women’s sports.
VBM: Speaking of which, how did the football situation affect Penn State volleyball?
Rose: A lot of it affected the Penn State volleyball coach, because I know so many of the people who were involved with the allegations and so many of the people who were impacted. I know a lot of those people and it’s unfortunate because you have to be exclusive. You have to either be anti-Penn State because Jerry Sandusky was accused of doing these things and found guilty or you don’t believe the other people. I don’t know everything that’s going on on my team, but it’s been a challenge for everybody at the university.
I think the hiring of [football] coach [Bill] O’Brien was really positive and things worked out well with the players that stayed. A lot of the fans and people who know Penn State know the culture and know what Penn State’s all about. Certainly it was a terrible thing that happened at the university and there are a lot of lessons to be learned and I’m sure a lot of classes taught and a lot of courses around the United States about every aspect of how it was handled and how it was prosecuted and how everybody did what they did.
I’m just trying to coach the women’s volleyball team and keep our players focused on the things that we do control and know that we’re at a great university. I don’t believe everything I hear or everything I read.
VBM: Do you still teach a class?
Rose: Yes. Now I teach an ethics-in-coaching class.
VBM: And in November you turn 60?
Rose: I do.
VBM: Thoughts about that?
Rose: When I was young I thought 60 was a really big number (laughs). Now, I look at 60 and, well, like losing [to Texas], I’m not a first-year coach who is going to go crazy about it. We’re either going to get better at the things we weren’t very good at or we’re going to repeat them in the future. That’s what being 60 and coaching for 40 years will give you.
VBM: Best moment of your coaching career? It doesn’t have to be a victory.
Rose: Well, it wouldn’t be a victory. It’s getting kids to have the courage to get better. I’ve had a lot of those moments. I feel like a lot of coaches who have been in it a long time. I’ve seen how the game has changed. Recruiting is significantly different, training is different, but I still enjoy what I’m doing. So what I like is when I have some kids who have some sauce and they represent the sport the right way and they play hard.
VBM: Favorite restaurant in ...
Rose: Well, in the Big Ten I’ve got the deli tour. Which Big Ten schools have good delis. There’s a good one at Michigan, Zingerman’s is a great deli. There’s a great deli at Ohio State, Chicago’s got great delis so I always make a deli run there. I don’t eat with the team a lot. Part of my longevity, if there is a reason, is separation. I don’t spend all time with the players. When I was young I was the parents’ age. Now I’m the grandparents’ age. It’s a totally different thing.
VBM: Ok, but I didn’t get to finish the question. Which was, what is your favorite place in State College?
Rose: State College is hurting for restaurants. That’s why I have such a commitment to eating on the road.