A Rose Like No Other
By Zack Feldman
When his team had finished a dramatic comeback to defeat Texas and win the 2009 NCAA women’s volleyball championship, ESPN’s cameras turned to Russ Rose. The Penn State coach gave a rare smile.
When the cameras returned five seconds later, the smile was gone. The man whose wisdom helped lead Penn State to its third consecutive national championship was jotting one more note into his binder.
On a Tuesday afternoon this October, Rose reclined in his office chair, arms folded. Over his left shoulder were stained glass windows with a volleyball player diving on one pane and “Penn State volleyball” on another. On a wall to his right was a collage of memorabilia including hats and press clippings from championship seasons.
The man whose teams have won five national and 22 conference championships is a meticulous student of the game and especially of its statistics.
Mountains of papers, filled with records of digs, kills, opportunities and more surround him. An electronic store’s supply of compact discs — about 200 in all, containing video of opponents — occupies two shelves on the wall facing him.
During the 12-minute interview he granted to five reporters that afternoon, Rose didn’t yield a smile. He did utter a few under-his-breath quips about the media while supplying the journalists with sound-bite quotes for their stories.
When the reporters cleared, Rose remained in his office with a visitor. His players were downstairs in Recreation Hall, warming up for practice. He pointed to some scouting reports.
“I’m working on Minnesota now,” he said referring to a folder on his desk. Then, pointing to another folder on the chair to his right: “That one is Wisconsin.”
Both matches were more than a month away.
Rose’s obsession with statistics is eerily similar to that of Billy Beane, who built the Oakland A’s baseball teams on the basis of arcane statistics — and who was made famous by Michael Lewis’ bestseller, “Moneyball,” and the subsequent movie.
Rose’s volleyball story may never make it to the big screen (nor would his part likely be played by Brad Pitt), but Penn State’s most successful coach of the 21st century has found a formula that works.
Cathy Quilico, who played for Rose in 2008-10 as a libero, or defensive specialist, said she has never encountered a coach who placed such emphasis on statistics. She said Rose “looks at stats all through practice and constantly during matches.”
“At Penn State,” she said, “you get playing time because of your stats.”
Rose, the Student
Forty-one years ago, 17-year-old Russ Rose wasn’t thinking about digs, kills or the possibility of coaching a championship volleyball team.
A senior in a Chicago high school, Rose worked summers as the adult athletic director at a Wisconsin resort. He would have been content doing that kind of work the rest of his life.
He had never played a game of volleyball.
A little prodding from his father made a lot of difference.
“My father kind of just indicated, and he was right, that I should get an education, not just experience,” Rose said. “The question was, ‘What do I like?’ And all I liked was sports, gambling and girls.”
One constant part of his early life was an involvement with sports. That included a trip one summer to a baseball camp run by Ted Williams, the Hall of Fame outfielder of the Boston Red Sox.
In between camps, Williams, he said, “put me in the backseat of his car and took me to a baseball game. After the game, we got back in his station wagon and went back to the camp.”
One of his fellow campers was the son of New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford. Two-time All-Star Eddie Waitkus was one of his coaches.
When he entered George Williams College in Williams Bay, Wis., about 90 miles from Chicago, he was beginning the journey that ultimately led to volleyball and Penn State.
He had concluded that he wanted to be a physical education teacher and basketball coach, and George Williams fit the bill.
“I just happened to go there, and it was a volleyball school,” he said.
As he pursued a degree in health and physical education at George Williams, he came across a coach named Jim Coleman. That encounter would change Rose’s outlook on sports, if not his life.
“Jim Coleman was a guy that opened his office and his library and every file he had and wanted to just talk volleyball with anybody at anytime,” Rose said. “I didn’t know what was going on, but I could listen.”
Rose took Volleyball I at George Williams, but he was intent on playing varsity baseball. That presented a problem: He had long hair, and the coach insisted that he cut it.
“I thought that length of hair had no correlation with ability to play baseball,” Rose said. “I was stubborn enough to say, ‘Not a chance.’ ”
He played varsity golf, but, after taking the volleyball class, he decided to go out for the volleyball team. “I went from never playing to taking a class to being on the team to being the captain.” Rose said. He regarded his skills as below average, but his competitive nature allowed him to keep up with more gifted athletes.
He forgot about a career as a basketball coach.
At the University of Nebraska, where he studied for a master’s degree, Rose was an assistant volleyball coach for two years. In December 1978, he completed his master’s thesis, titled “Statistical Analysis of Selected Volleyball Techniques at Three Levels of Women’s Intercollegiate Volleyball.”
Dr. Charles Ansorge, a professor in Nebraska’s Educational Psychology program, was a member of the committee that reviewed Rose’s thesis.
“He was pretty clearly focused back then on the use of statistics in his coaching of the sport,” Ansorge said in an email interview. “He used fairly sophisticated statistical tools back at that time to analyze the data he collected for his study.”
Rose said, however, that he knew way more about volleyball than about statistics.
“I couldn’t pass a statistics class,” he said. “Dr. Ansorge probably had to take apples and oranges out on his desk for me to understand what he was talking about.”
Drawing parallels to Beane’s experience in “Moneyball,” Rose looks at statistics that wouldn’t show up on a scoresheet.
“Sometimes, it is about the things that don’t happen. In baseball, missing the cutoff man, where do we tally that? It’s either a putout or an error. But if you had hit the cutoff man, then we would have done it the right way,” Rose said.
Among Rose’s conclusions in his thesis:
- “Passing ability determines the upper limit at which level a player or team can compete.”
- “Spike and spike defense [are] the two most highly correlated skill components to team success.”
Those conclusions still influence Rose’s today as he decides which players to put on the court and how to rotate them.
Rose at Penn State
Tom Tait, who became the first head coach of Penn State’s men’s volleyball program in 1971, founded the women’s team in 1973. Both became varsity programs in 1977.
By 1978, though, Tait grew increasingly frustrated as he tried to coach both teams while teaching exercise physiology and doing research with a team in performance lab,
“I finally decided to just play hardball and walk in and say, ‘Next fall, I will be coaching only one team, so you’re going to have to get a coach for the other program,’ Tait said.
In came resumes from applicants nationwide.
Tait, who helped with the interview process, found the application that had been sent in by Rose, then a graduate student and assistant volleyball coach at Nebraska.
Tait, who is now retired, said few candidates had both the academic and coaching credentials required for the position, which involved both teaching and coaching.
During his 32-year tenure at Penn State, Rose has continued teaching. His current course is Kinesiology 493, Principles and Ethics of Coaching.
Kristin Carpenter, one of Rose’s players and a student in the class, said Rose doesn’t change in the classroom, even at 8 a.m.
“He’s himself with everyone. He’ll tell it like it is. There are times where if someone doesn’t come to class, he’ll ask, ‘Who has their number?’ and he wakes them up,” Carpenter said. “But the stuff he talks about, you wouldn’t find it in any other classroom.”
Few coaches still teach, but Rose continues to take his classroom duties seriously.
“When I came in that was part of the deal,” he said.
Back on the court, in games and practices, Rose carries around either a clipboard or binder filled with statistics, many of his own creation. For example, instead of just looking at how many digs a player gets, he jots down the number of opportunities the player had against how the number she converted.
Carpenter describes his statistics as “scribble” or “hieroglyphics.” She said, “But he knows how to read it. And he knows we dread seeing that book, because that’s all of our errors.”
Tait said Rose’s statistical background helps him avoid coaching mistakes. Where other coaches may rely on gut feelings, he said, Rose relies on statistics.
Roberta Holehouse, a libero on Rose’s 2005-08 teams, said, “Every practice, we had his stats on our passing. He knows how many opportunities you were given and how many you actually converted. He can see from the statistics he keeps in his book what we need to improve on.”
During a game, after a strong point or great play, Rose is seated. After a missed pass or a service error, Rose is seated. He rarely calls timeouts.
“Him calling timeouts is never good,” Carpenter said. “And if he stands up, it’s like, ‘please hide the ref or he’ll kill him.’ ” Carpenter said.
Rose has studied the behavior of legendary coaches including basketball coach Bobby Knight, known for once throwing a chair during a game. Rose knows his style is different.
Knight’s intent was “ ‘If I can distract enough people and my team does well.’ He’s a big guy, he can handle the heat,” Rose said. “But I’m a calm guy. I’m not an emotional guy.”
Rose typically drives his coaching points home at practices rather than during games. Behind closed doors, Carpenter said he can be a different presence.
“He knows since he recruited us, we’re tough enough to handle any type of criticism,” Carpenter said. “He’s going to say stuff to you just to get a reaction out of you. But as a player, nothing can be negative in your head.”
And it’s even worse, Carpenter said, for the player on the team who’s dating one of Rose’s sons.
“During a drill we were doing, she just completely forgot something and it was so obvious,” Carpenter said. “And he just goes up to her and was like, ‘What are you going to do, leave my grandkids at the mall one day?’ And you just have to laugh.”
Laurie Lokash, who played under Rose in the early 1980s and is now in her 28th season of coaching Slippery Rock University’s women’s volleyball team, said Rose is today what he was then: a coach who gets the most out of his players.
“I don’t think you realize until 10 years later exactly what he did for you. I know that playing for a coach like that has helped me tremendously once out of college,” Lokash said. “He treated us like adults and he made us respond as responsible individuals.”
Since Rose began at Penn State in 1979, his teams have won at least 22 matches every season. But when the team was in the Atlantic 10 conference, the teams couldn’t even think of the big prize.
“We just weren’t a national championship-caliber team,” Lokash said. “But we could push a national caliber team like Pacific to five games because we just thought we could do that.”
The executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, Kathy Deboer, said that in the big matches, Rose’s teams were helped by his ability to treat all opponents alike. “Whether his team is behind 15-5 or ahead 15-5, his good teams play the same way,” she said. “They don’t play to the level of the opponent at the other side of the net.”
Just as he was during his first years on the job, Lokash said, Rose is calm on the bench, and players know how to play the next point without getting directions from the bench.
Through his players, Rose has achieved greatness. And he credits them.
“I was sitting here in this office one day and was looking up at that back wall there and I saw all these awards I’ve received,” Rose said. “And I just said, ‘That’s embarrassing,’ and I took them all down and threw them in a box. Because it’s not about me, it’s about the team.”
Rose, the Recruiter
Growing up in thousand Oaks, Calif., a half-hour from Malibu, Cathy Quilico had plenty of options for playing collegiate volleyball.
She initially chose Boston College because it offered her a full scholarship, while Penn State offered only a partial scholarship. But she wanted something more, and when she met Rose, her choice was easy.
“I just think when you instinctively meet Coach Rose, you just love him,” Quilico said. “He’s funny, he’s honest and he’s witty.”
Traditionally, powerhouse volleyball teams have come from the West Coast, where many players develop their skills while playing on the beach. Penn State has emerged as one of the rare championship schools located east of the Rockies.
When Rose started, the team had funding problems.
He said, “I had three scholarships and I was competing with people that had 12 scholarships. So the fact that I had 25 percent of what they had to offer, they had 75 percent more opportunities to make a mistake and not be saddled with a mistake. I couldn’t make a mistake. So I had to recruit differently.” Penn State officials increased the complement of scholarships for volleyball Rose said, when the University joined the Big Ten in 1991.
Rose said he always leaned toward taking kids who already want to play for him instead of trying to persuade other kids to want to play for him.
And for Kristin Carpenter, a Mechanicsville, Va., native who had dreamed of playing for Texas, Rose began the recruitment early.
“He told me he had a spot for me when I was a freshman in high school,” Carpenter said. “Maybe he thought I was going to grow, I don’t know. But he started picking on me and I snapped right back and he told me, ‘You’re going to fit in just fine.’ ”
In his recruiting, Rose doesn’t pitch the possibility that the new player will be part of a winning streak. He sees that as a distraction.
“The kids who are here now are getting their ass kicked because of the ass-kicking the previous kids did to other people,” Rose said. “Last year, we had won one-hundred-something matches in a row and we hadn’t lost to Purdue in twenty-something years and we hadn’t lost to Indiana ever, and when those teams won, they celebrated like it was the national championship.”
Rose credits his staff with helping the program thrive, saying he alone couldn’t bring in the level of recruits the program gets every year.
He said that if Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson “talks to a recruit, the kid’s going to Penn State. Are you kidding me, this guy’s the greatest wrestler of the last era. The kids are going to want to play for him.”
In contrast, Rose describes himself as “an old guy, I’m 58 years old.” He said, “There’s young coaches that are 30 years old that are good-looking and sweet, and they come in and the girls are thinking, ‘This guy’s hot.’ And I come in and they think, ‘This guy’s older than my grandfather.’ ”
Rose, the Coach
Freshman Lacey Fuller walked into Rose’s office one Tuesday morning in October with a stack of newspapers for the coach. What followed was a quick conversation that was more like a quiz.
“Here’s one of my favorite characters. What’s going on?” Rose asked.
“Been getting into trouble lately?”
“Is it a good day?”
“Today? Most likely.”
“You going to have a good practice?”
“What are you going to do that makes it good?”
“I’m going to dig everything and be more consistent on serves.”
“And serve tough.”
“And serve tough… And proud.”
This was just one interaction with a young player, one of hundreds Rose has coached over 32 seasons, a span during which Penn State had won 1,033 games by the end of the 2010 season.
For a 2011 game against No. 1 Illinois on Oct. 8, Rose joined his players as they came onto the court to a standing ovation from more than 5,200 home fans.
His players were excited to play in front of the big home crowd, but Rose walked straight to his courtside chair with nothing more than a quick glimpse of the spectators.
Rose is all business on the sidelines. That shows every set. Every timeout. Every play.
“He’s very stoic. He hardly ever cracks a smile,” said Bill Jaffe, his longtime friend and a volleyball program donor. “I think he did crack a smile after some of the national championship games, but only briefly.”
Behind the scenes, his players know he is more than a one-mood guy.
“Some people always ask me, ‘Is he always that serious? He looks so serious on the bench, and he never smiles.’ But when you know Coach Rose, it’s completely the opposite,” Quilico said. “Yeah, he looks serious on the bench, but oftentimes, he is making us laugh and he is telling jokes, even though it may not appear that way to people watching us.”
Kathy DeBoer said Rose makes himself out to be “the unrelenting cynic,” poking fun at himself, his players and the team.
But she added that his handling of the program yields an unparalleled sense of respect from both his peers and his team.
His players “would walk on hot coals for him,” DeBoer said. “And you don’t get that by belittling people or badgering them. You get that by working very hard, while showing that you care about them.”
One way he earns his players’ respect: refusing to call a squad member out in the media, even with reporters often trying to bait him.
“I’d never say in an article, ‘I’m disappointed with player X, Y or Z,’ ” Rose said to a group of reporters. “There’s no point in saying something again to you after I’ve told the player.”
Beyond the numbers and handling the media, Rose knows people.
“He knows how to motivate them,” Quilico said. “He knows how to push their buttons to get people to play better. I think that’s what makes him a successful coach.”
When they talk about Rose, his players invariably mention his honesty.
Rose believes that people, from administrators to recruiters to players, can function only if they are honest with him. In turn, he is honest with them.
Still, he won’t play the role of “nice coach.” Rose said, “It’s a competitive sport and I want you to play hard and I want you to be aggressive, and I want you to tell me when you’re hurt, and I’ll be honest with you if you’re honest with me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Rose doesn’t claim to be the reason for his teams’ success, but at the same time, he knows he plays a large role. “I know I’m important,” Rose said. “But I also know all of us are replaceable. So I don’t hold myself in such high regard.”
His players, though, credit Rose with nearly all of their success.
“He spends every waking moment of his life thinking about this team and what is the best way to make this team the most successful,” Quilico said. “The biggest part is the recruiting process. So not only does he coach, but he also recruits and the recruits that come in, have an effect on the program.”
Rose has earned his way into a couple of prominent halls of fame, including the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. The Jewish award is one of the few personal awards he displays in his office.
Rose, off the Court
On his short list of hobbies is reading – that is, reading about sports.
“I have all the books on football and baseball. All I do is read sports books,” Rose said. “I don’t know anything that’s going on in the world.”
And in the style of Red Auerbach, the former owner of the Boston Celtics who would celebrate a big victory by lighting up a cigar, Rose is a cigar smoker.
“I smoke after big wins but I don’t smoke after losses,” Rose said. “Lately, this team has been making me find smaller wins. Like, ‘You didn’t get thrown out of the game, coach, have a cigar.’ ”
Not only has Rose devoted a portion of his office to cigars — including an elegant humidor in his office for storing them — but he has gotten some players involved.
Roberta Holehouse took up cigar smoking after the team defeated Minnesota for the national championship during her senior year.
“Afterwards, Coach was smoking a cigar and invited me over, so he and I started to be cigar buddies,” Holehouse said. “I would go to his office sometimes and smoke a cigar.”
Rose’s family, too, is entwined with the volleyball community.
Lori Barberich, Russ’s wife, was a three-time All-American at Penn State between 1981 and 1984. They began to date after her senior year, and have been married for 25 years. They have four sons: Jonathan, 23; Michael, 21; Chris, 19; and Nick, 17.
All four sons have experience with volleyball, though some are fonder of the sport than others. Jonathan helped with what Russ called ‘Moneyball-esque statistics” for the women’s team last year, while Chris won the 2010 state title with State College High School, taking home MVP honors.
Lori is different from her husband on many fronts, including handling of players.
“Where I’m the other extreme, she’s a very positive person,” Russ said. “She has a great eye for volleyball. Like most people, she makes my life a better place. I don’t look at her as a volleyball player; I look at her as my life partner. I’m coaching other people’s children and she’s raising my children.”
Lori isn’t an official coach on the team, but her impact is enormous. “I wouldn’t have made it through last year without her,” Kristin Carpenter said. “For one, him being so hard on me and two, being thrown into a position I hadn’t played in four years, it was hard. With her constant motivation and constant positivity, she’s one of those people who will go out of her way to help anyone. If you would have asked me what type of girl I would have picked for Coach, I would have picked a stripper. But just to balance out his craziness, she’s perfect.”
Rose said other coaches have caught up with his statistics-oriented tactics.
“Everybody uses computerized stuff now,” he said. “ … I’m probably living in the slow lane compared to what people who are computer literate and grew up with a math background do. They’re way ahead of me.”
Rose said he enjoys his life in State College, but he insists that his place among the all-time winningest NCAA volleyball coaches doesn’t guarantee him anything.
“It changes every year. If I’m the winningest coach, I’m the winningest coach today,” Rose said. “In a couple years, someone else will be the winningest coach and I’ll be working on my 6-iron somewhere.”