In 43 seasons at Penn State, the man with the quick verbal jab built more than just great volleyball teams
Nothing is ever boring when Russ Rose is in the room.
A few years back, in Rose’s hometown of Chicago, he and the two other founders of The Art of Coaching Volleyball, Terry Liskevych and John Dunning, were delivering opening remarks at an AOCVB clinic. Dunning went first, drawing a nice parallel between coaching and cooking with a description of his wife’s expertise at preparing Italian cuisine, a skill she learned from her mother and then cultivated over time.
He finished, and it was Rose’s turn.
“Always nice to be in Chicago,” he began. “I think the first time I was arrested was in Chicago.”
Laughter all around. In six seconds, the winningest coach in the history of NCAA Division I women’s volleyball had them. After an opening like that, who wasn’t going to keep listening when the talk turned to coaching?Rose, who announced his retirement from Penn State in December at age 68 after winning more titles (seven) and more matches (1330) than any other D1 women’s volleyball coach in history, has never treaded lightly into conversations or bubble-wrapped his message. That was true when he took over at Penn State in 1979, and in 43 seasons he “hasn’t deviated,” says Liskevych, who has known him since the early 1970s when Rose took his Sports Psych class at George Williams College.
“I think people at times have had problems with how direct he is,” Liskevych says, “but you always know where you stand with Russ.”
For Katie Schumacher-Cawley, who was hired this week as Penn State’s new head coach and played on the Nittany Lions’ first NCAA championship team in 1999, the no-BS approach was just right – and a big part of why the program became one of the best in the sport’s history.
“I liked the fact that Coach was telling me the truth right off the bat,” says Schumacher-Cawley, who served as Rose’s assistant the past four seasons. “It was never, ‘You’re going to come here and be the star.’ It was, ‘You’re going to work really hard, and you’re going to get better and be a great teammate.’ I enjoyed every minute of it. Was it hard? Absolutely. There were times I was like, ‘He just won’t get off my back.’ But looking back, those were some of the best times because we were pushed harder than we thought we could be. I definitely respect that and hope to carry it on for him and continue that tradition.”
“Radical candor” is how Micha Hancock describes Rose’s communication style. She was the starting setter for Penn State’s championship teams in 2013 and 2014, a three-time First-Team AVCA All American and a member of the U.S.’s Olympic gold medal team in Tokyo last summer.
“He’s just very honest,” she says. “That was comforting in a way because you knew he wasn’t going to say anything behind your back that he wouldn’t say to your face. There were days when I thought, ‘That was uncalled for.’ But he was always forthcoming with the truth. He knew how to connect, and he knew how to drive people to be their best.”
In preseason of Hancock’s freshman year, Rose said this to her: “You’re probably going to hate me for these four years, but I’m going to see what you’re made of. We’re going to figure out how great we can be.”It was a process, especially in the first two seasons. Some days, the message clicked, like when he told her, “You’re not giving life to the ball,” and she relaxed, and her sets improved. Other days were crunchy, and she wondered if this was “where I wanted to be.” And some days were right in the middle, frustrating at first, then useful once the message had sunk in – like when she’d ask a question and he’d say: “Figure it out. Your job as a setter is to solve it.”
“I would think, ‘Damn you … he’s right.’ Every game is a new puzzle.”
Over time, she grew to understand that what he was doing was all part of a grander plan.
“He wants you to find a way, and it’s not only connected to sports. I think the reason women come out of that program so much stronger is they realize that this is a metaphor for life. This is not going to be easy. Adulting isn’t always fun. Sometimes you just have to figure it out, and it doesn’t look pretty all the time. But if you’re scrappy and tenacious, you can get some really cool things done.”
No flatliners allowed
I visited the Penn State gym to shoot video for Art of Coaching in the preseason of 2014, four months before the Nittany Lions won their seventh championship. One of my favorite clips was from a water break. In 43 seconds, Rose explained the importance of bringing energy to the court – and everything else you do in life. “You can’t be a flatliner player,” he said. “You might say, ‘That’s just the way I am.’ Well, that would be a reason somebody wouldn’t hire you. … We need to play with energy. We need to play with fight. We need to have people who go in and run around and smack people on the ass and make plays.”
Dunning, who won five NCAA titles as head coach at the University of Pacific and Stanford, says Penn State’s energy brought out the best in their opponents.
“They had an uncompromising commitment to competing, and Russ deserves so much respect for that, because that’s just who he is,” Dunning says. “They were going to be relentless, and they were going to do all the little things because that’s what you do to compete.”
From Liskevych’s perspective, those little things were a big key to Penn State’s sustained excellence.
“I’ve never seen anyone who has trained a team to do the nitty gritty stuff as well as Russ,” he says. “Covering the hitter. Pursuit of the ball. He demands that people go for balls, and he’s relentless in teaching pursuit skills.”In December of 2012, Penn State narrowly beat a very good Minnesota team in the regional finals to advance to the final four. On one crucial play, Nittany Lions defensive specialist Lacey Fuller covered a blocked ball with her chest and Penn State went on to win the point and the match. “I remember thinking, if we don’t cover that play, we don’t go to the final four,” Hancock says. “Coverage was a huge thing for (Rose). He would tell us every day: ‘You’re not a team player if you’re not laying it out on the floor for your teammates. If someone gets blocked and you’re not trying to save the ball, how can you develop trust?’”
“I think that’s one of the biggest lessons he wants to get across,” Hancock adds. “No one is most important. You need other people. You need to connect with others. Every player who comes out of that program, whether they’ve won Big Ten championships or national championships, knows what it means to work hard for another human.”
Growing up on the North side of Chicago, Rose worked in the resort industry as a teenager. It’s an experience he values to this day.
“In hindsight, I reaped way more benefits from that job than I did as a Phys Ed major in college,” he says. “Every day, you had the opportunity to have conversations and interactions with people. I’ve had a long, distinguished coaching career. I might say I enjoyed the resort business better.”
After playing volleyball at George Williams – as a senior, he was captain – and serving two years as the team’s part-time coach, he was hired at Penn State in 1979. His salary was $14,000, and only 1/3 of it was for coaching volleyball. Another 1/3 was for teaching in the professional area (elementary physical education) and another 1/3 was for teaching activity classes.
In those days, he didn’t have much to offer recruits.
“Not long ago, one player (from that era) sent me a copy of her scholarship,” Rose says. “She was starting setter for one … hundred … dollars. Think about that. One … hundred … dollars. Now kids are getting scholarships, cost of attendance, NIL, an academic incentive at some schools, and I recruited a girl for a hundred dollars and said to her, ‘OK, understand, you can’t get hurt because I have no other setter.’ That’s the way it was until we joined the Big Ten (in 1990) and became fully funded.
“I’d trade that player for a lot of other players who have wasted full scholarships, that’s for sure. Because she played her ass off. She was all in. It’s hard to get people who are all in. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m all in.’ But it’s hard to get people to demonstrate they’re really all in.”
One phrase used frequently by Rose that has always stuck with Schumacher-Cawley is “Everything matters!”“He said that all the time,” she says. “Everything matters. How you train. How you talk. How you treat people.”
It was more than 20 years ago that Rose showed up at the Schumacher family home for a recruiting visit. Instantly, he hit it off with Katie’s father, Jerry, who, like Rose, was a big cigar smoker. As Rose left that day, he said something like: “Well, if we don’t get her, at least I have a new friend who smokes cigars.”
Years later, when Schumacher-Cawley was the head coach of University of Illinois Chicago, her team played in a tournament with Penn State in Chicago. At the time, Jerry, who passed away eight years ago, was in the hospital at Northwestern, ill with cancer. Rose went to visit him one day between matches.
“For him to take the time to do that, it was so special to me,” Schumacher-Cawley says. “I know it meant a lot to my dad. He was really excited to see him. But that’s just the type of guy Coach is, and I think sometimes people don’t see that. They just see the coach who’s really hard on everyone, but I think he’s got a way softer side than people know.”
Hancock has a similar take.
“I think he’ll do whatever he can to help you in life,” she says. “I know I can call him or Lori (his wife), and they’d be there for me. Without question. They’re a family to me now.”
The time is right
I called him the first week of January to find out about his decision to leave coaching and hear about his retirement plans.
He said he didn’t like the direction many things were going in college sports, including coaches poaching players from other programs, the transfer portal, which makes it easier for college athletes to leave a school, and the NIL, which allows student athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness.
“There were enough factors that I thought it was a good time to get out.”
When we were talking about the success of the program, he referred to something Liskevych says frequently: “You’re only going to be as good as your players.”
“Every team is different, and that’s the art of coaching,” Rose said. “You can’t say, ‘I have to be like that team when you don’t have the personnel to do it.’ You need to put your blinders on and look at your team and say, ‘This is the group I have for the next six months. How can I maximize our chances to be successful?’”
I asked him about what Hancock had said, that an important message of his is that every player needs to sacrifice for their teammates.
“If you get good kids who want to play together and care about each other more than they care about themselves, then you have a chance,” he said. “Doesn’t mean you have a guarantee, but you have a chance. If you don’t have that, you have no chance.”
We talked briefly about his signature one-liners, my favorite being a reference in 1999 to the self-awareness he had developed from close losses in three previous NCAA championship matches. His quote: “In the early years, I thought I had all the answers, but I was a lot smarter sitting in the stands with some Grand Marnier in my stomach than I was on the end of the bench.”
For sportswriters, that’s pure gold. I asked him if he could trace his comedic roots.
“Just my style,” he said. “I like to have a good time. Lots of people are really, really serious all the time. We had to work really hard to be successful, but I wasn’t so serious that I was going crazy. All those years when we were driving to matches, if we got lost, I’d say, ‘No big deal. Let’s stop and get something to eat.’”
What’s next? I asked.
“Well, I’m leaving for Florida tomorrow, and the next day I’ll get up and go for a walk and I’ll come back with a cup of coffee, a cigar and a book and I’ll sit in the sun. That’ll take me to about noon, and then I’ll worry about what’s going on the rest of the day. I like the walking. I like the cigar smoking. But I especially like sitting in the sun.”
Is that going to be enough after all those years competing at such a high level?
“We’ll see,” he said, then added with a smirk: “If I feel I left too early, I’m going to go in the coaches’ portal and come back next year.”