by Mike Poorman
June 29, 2017
(Photo: Mark Selders, Penn State Athletics)
Russ Rose is committed to Penn State.
And how. He arrived in Happy Valley in 1979 and has never left.
Thirty-eight seasons and counting later, he has amassed an NCAA all-time record 1,213 victories and seven national championships in first building, then guiding the preeminent collegiate women's volleyball program in the nation.
Russ is perpetually demanding, innovative yet old school, consistently and boldly candid, intensely loyal, hilariously and dryly funny, occasionally dogmatic and frequently brilliant.
And that's on a good day.
Russ Rose can also be a PIA. And how.
He is a teacher on the court and off — his masters thesis was on volleyball statistics and he still teaches KINES 493: Principles and Ethics of Coaching, which meets at the Russ Rosian hour of 8 a.m. Monday and Wednesdays every fall semester.
Rose has crafted a huge niche for himself at Penn State, and in intercollegiate athletics across the nation. He is respected by his peers, is revered by alumni (volleyball players and fanatical followers alike) and is sometimes feared by the less-initiated, including a wayward student or ten who have had the bad idea of blowing off his class.
His journey at Penn State has been one of success and, very Sinatra-like, he's done it his way. Joe Paterno was an important mentor, and his Rec Hall neighbor these days, Cael Sanderson, serves as part-inspiration, part-foil, part-fellow Penn State legend.
Russ Rose is Penn State.
So, it's no surprise that Rose kicks things off among the featured head coaches in our "Final Word" series. Or that his noun of choice is "commitment."
Rose is Part 2 of our seven-part "The Word on Coaching" series, in which Penn State’s athletics director and a half-dozen of PSU’s most successful current head coaches discuss their philosophy on athletics and life, summarized in a singular word of his or her choosing. The line-up:
Sandy Barbour, Director of Athletics — "Why?"
Russ Rose, Women’s Volleyball — Today
Char Morett-Curtiss, Field Hockey — Monday, July 3
Guy Gadowsky, Men’s Ice Hockey — Friday, July 7
Erica Dambach, Women’s Soccer — Monday, July 10
James Franklin, Football — Friday, July 14
Cael Sanderson, Wrestling — Monday, July 17
• • • • •
RUSS ROSE AND HIS ONE WORD
SC.com: So, what's your word?
Rose: Commitment. That's being all in and wanting others to subscribe to the mission and recognize the importance of working together, controlling the things that you can control and having fun with the process.
It doesn't have to be tortuous. It has to be fun. But it's hard to achieve great things with mediocre effort. Having great players doesn't guarantee that you'll have a great team. It means you have great potential. The execution part is the hard part. That's where people have to get in the gym and they have to work hard and they have to sacrifice and they have to be cognizant of what the other players' needs are and can they massage their contribution to the team to give us a best chance for success? That's instead of just digging their heels in the sand.
It's commitment to whatever the cause is. It's being all in. It's not being distracted, not letting the noise bother you, not focusing on anything other than what you've identified as being the most important thing.
SC.com: Where does winning, which some say is "the" most important thing, fit into that?
Rose: When we had those years we went undefeated, I never talked about being undefeated. I talked about getting better. I talked about the things the team needed to do better. But more importantly, I talked to the players and told each of them what they needed to do to be better, because all of them should have the goal of being better.
If you are just looking at the end result, which some people do in sports and in life — that's how they keep score; "I made it!" -- well, just like that, with a flip of the coin, they're gone. So they didn't really make it. Making it, if that's such a phrase, is sustaining it. You want to build a product that is sustainable. You want to have people who believe in what you're doing, so you don't have to motivate them every day. That they've committed themselves.
I've had some years where I think I've had great commitment from the players and from the university. And there have been years both parties weren't all going in the same direction, so it made it a little more challenging for me in the role I had.
SC.com: Does your own commitment change?
Rose: Mine hasn't changed for 38 years. I work for Penn State. I care about Penn State and Penn State volleyball. I have friends at a lot of places, I get phone calls to help people out a lot of the time. I give advice and guidance, and I mentor. But I am committed to the people I interact with here. I'm not out looking for other jobs. I get involved in other things, but I work for Penn State. I'm loyal to Penn State and Penn State is loyal to me.
I don't know how many more preseasons I have. It's the same every year: I want to get a group of kids, I want them to be the best they can be, to compete and do better than the team the year before. I say the same thing every year. I've been consistent.
I say to the seniors, "Hey, I don't judge you on the last three championships. I judge you on your senior year. Did you leave the program in a better place than you found it?"
Sc.com: For the athletes, how much of the commitment gene do they come in with and how much do you engender?
Rose: To me, in recruiting, you want to tell the truth and identify the picture as to what it will be when they get here. That's becoming more and more difficult because when others are painting players a beautiful picture of rainbows and butterflies, I'm saying, "Hey, you have to work really hard; there's no guarantee. I can guarantee you're going to get better. I can't guarantee you're going to win. If other people are guaranteeing that you're going to win, they're better than I am."
I can guarantee that our players are going to work really hard and that we want to be in a position to win. And we want to have the right mindset to know that we trained hard enough that we feel that we deserve to win. But, there's no guarantee that you're going to win. There are certain variables that are out of your control — injuries, kids just not being competitive enough or not focused enough. That's one of the things that's tough about recruiting. If you told people the truth, then you feel like at least you've told them what it's going to be like when they get here. We've had some examples of players who came to Penn State because we were good, not because they wanted to be good.
I'm not going to chase them away. I'm beginning my 39th season here, and we've had less than 10 players transfer‚ and yet we had two this past season. And I think for the good. What I mean by that is for the good of them, rather than us. They were here on the team, and we treated them fine. Now they have a chance to go somewhere and re-start what they said they wanted two or three years ago.
I don't waste a lot of time with players who say they want to do something, but then don't do it. I want to focus on the kids whose actions speak louder than the words.
SC.com: How do you inoculate them with commitment?
Rose: You hope your staff has told them the truth about what the program entails. You hope that they've done enough homework that they understand the tradition aspects of why our program is successful. Certain factors make it easier to succeed. But it's hard to excel without being committed, really doing the things that are necessary.
SC.com: How do you know if a kid is truly committed?
Rose: In the recruiting process? You don't. When they get here, they either identify as that because they're always in your office, wanting to know what they can do to get better. Or you only see them in practice, so they're committed to something other than what I'm committed to. I have players now who are committed every weekend to going to see their boyfriends or whatever they're doing. Those people aren't like the players we've had in the past, who were committed to hanging banners. Big difference.
Sc.com: Can you change their thinking?
Rose: Some people change (their players) by telling them to go somewhere else. That's not the way I've done it, and that's not the way Penn State does it. I've been at Penn State through 69 head coaching changes in Big Ten women's volleyball. And yet, recruits ask me when am I going to be leaving. That was the conversation I would have with Joe (Paterno). He would say, "When are you leaving?"
So, there's a lot of ways to do things. There's not just one Penn State way to do things. Because my way is different than Cael (Sanderson)'s way. My way is different than Char (Morett-Curtiss)'s way, which is different than Guy (Gadwosky)'s way. Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses.
Sc.com: Are the best kids the most committed?
Rose: There's always going to be an outlier who you can't figure out why they're so good. They may be a screwball, yet they're good at what they do. They have the ability to balance a great college experience, being the best college player and the face of the program, being able to help others, being in the secret societies because they're great students. We've had a number of kids who've had great success but walked in different paths.
If you want to be great, you have to put the time in to accomplish those things. With wrestling, there's some guys in there in the fall when their locker room wasn't available — when our team was practicing three times a day — and they had guys who were coming in at our 8 a.m. practice and they weren't leaving until the end of our second practice, at 5 p.m. And then they had some guys who we would see drag it out at 10 o'clock at night.
I don't believe the 10,000 hours (rule, where expertise is purportedly achieved after that many hours of practice, a theory popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell). Did the guy who just won the U.S. Open put in 10,000 hours? He put in 30,000 hours, at least. But what about the person who played the lottery for the first time and won? How do you explain that? How do horses win races they haven't been running for 10,000 hours?
Sc.com: What's the biggest hurdle for a kid these days when it comes to staying committed?
Rose: For kids these days, it's their phones, their inability to communicate in a face-to-face fashion, texting and doing all of these other things I don't even understand. Those things keep changing, so it's good I'm not worried about one because there's going to be a new one next week. I don't get caught up in that sort of noise. I don't Tweet.
It's tough for kids because they're worried about their brand. They're texting, they're communicating, they have a way to sit in their room and say their thoughts.
So what's my challenge? Maybe I have too many players that have thoughts on their own about themselves vs. players who have thoughts about the team. The teams that are most successful are filled with players who revolve around the team.
Sc.com: Does hard work still work?
Rose: I'm old school. Hey, if you want to get better, you get in the gym and you bust your ass. And that's how you get better.
That's how people have survived. That's why great stories exist of people immigrating to the United States and having nothing in their pockets and just the clothing they're wearing, and they raise a family and take care of their children and create a business when they've had nothing. Those stories are based on hard work. Very few of them are based on an angel or benefactor. People work hard.
But that's not the common thread right now. You tell kids that you want them to work hard these days and they'll say, "Yeah, coach, I want to work hard, but I have to go meet someone for fake tanning and then we're going to the salt room, and then we're getting a massage and getting our nails done..."
I think it should be hard. I don't think it should be easy. The responsibility of a coach or parent is to put their kids in situations where they are going to be able to take care of themselves and not have mom or dad or me and the coaches take care of everything. I want them to responsible, because there are going to be times in life where it is just them.
That's where their commitment to who they are, what they want to be and what they're all about really matters.