Veteran coach is Penn State's calm, honest leader
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)One of Penn State women's volleyball coach Russ Rose's recruiting philosophies sounds like a silly slogan for a cable television network.
Sure, he wants players with good character, but he's also looking for characters.
"This isn't a church group I'm running. I want kids who want to have a full (college) experience," says the 31-year coaching veteran.
They're having fun all right in Happy Valley.
The team's 98-match winning streak is the second-longest ever in Division I team sports, behind only the 137 straight match wins for Miami men's tennis.
Penn State won its seventh straight Big Ten title this season and - most importantly to the Nittany Lions - is in the hunt for an unprecedented third straight NCAA volleyball championship with a regional semifinal match looming against Florida in Gainesville on Friday.
Welcome to college volleyball's version of a dynasty. The biggest character may be the lead Nittany Lion himself, not that Rose is one to seek the spotlight.
The team's exploits can be lost in the accomplishments of the ever-popular football program, which also has a pretty successful coach in Hall of Famer Joe Paterno. His 44-year head-coaching career dwarfs Rose's longevity.
"If you spend any time worrying about what others have and what you don't have, it's a disadvantage," Rose said. "You're always going to fly under the radar of the football program, and that's OK."
In terms of sideline presence, think of Rose as the anti-Bobby Knight, the former referee-stalking, chair-throwing college basketball coach.
He barely moves from his stool at side court whether his team is struggling or playing well - though usually, it's the latter.
He crosses a leg over to allow him to rest a notebook. Rose is engrossed in keeping his own stats, even though his assistants are keeping track, too.
Contrast that with the athletes flying around the court, the tall hitters up front winding up for spikes, or the shorter back row players lunging for digs.
At home, when the Nittany Lions are at their best, every point is greeted by cheerleaders, a vocal, loyal crowd of at least 1,500 and a pep band whose horns reverberates through cozy Rec Hall. Reserves celebrate every good play, often extending their arms to the side horizontal to the wood floor and skipping around, mimicking a plane in flight.
A volleyball game turns into a blue and white party.
"There are times before games when I just don't know why I say things the way I do. People look at me and laugh," said junior libero Alyssa D'Errico, often the team's most animated and vocal player. She sports a smile and a crazed look on her face pregame as she darts from teammate to teammate.
"We're much better when we're loose, relaxed and having fun," she said. "Part of the thing is that this program draws in outgoing personalities."
Yet the coach is the epitome of calm.
"He's just quiet," D'Errico said. "I think he's just a constant when it comes to games, and it's good thing for us because when we get into difficult situations, he doesn't change that, and he doesn't get tense ... The hard work comes in at practice."
The Nittany Lions may have gotten a workout the past few days.
Rose wasn't happy with his team's attitude last week in their second-round match against heavy underdog Penn. The Nittany Lions had a decisive edge in talent, but the Quakers had the edge in enthusiasm.
"Penn State is used to walking out on the floor and the other side being nervous, and I think we decided that wasn't going to be us," Penn coach Kerry Carr said.
Talent eventually won out. Penn State boasts several standouts, including senior outside hitter Megan Hodge, the most valuable player of the last two NCAA championships.
After the Penn match, Rose showed another side of himself well-known to those who follow the program - the side that can be brutally honest. Instead of celebrating the three-set sweep to the assembled media, he lit into his team.
"I just think we got some kids with suspect attitudes at times. It's disappointing is what it is," Rose said. "If you don't have energy, and (are) not excited about the event, that's unfortunate."
Rose didn't criticize any players in public. He reserves his choice words for private meetings.
"I'm comfortable that I discussed what my concerns were," he said Tuesday.
How did they react?
"We had a good practice," he said, declining to offer details.
His players always know where they stand, even if it's tough to take at times. Freshman Darcy Dorton, the Big Ten freshman of the year, said the first thing that attracted her to Penn State was Rose's coaching style.
"He's very honest. He tells us like it is. Some programs aren't like that. Sometimes he's brutally honest. Sometimes what he says isn't always nice, but it's for the betterment of the team," Dorton said earlier this season.
Like D'Errico, Dorton is often excitable on the court. Hodge, the senior go-to player, is more of a quiet leader. She describes herself as having a strong personality that at times has clashed with Rose's equally strong persona.
"He's tough. You have to be a certain kind of player to play here and deal with the hardships of this program," Hodge said. "He tries to bring the best out of you whether or not you see it at the time."
Rose balances that tough-love attitude with a dry wit that seems to fit his often monotone, deadpan delivery.
Not that his players may get his jokes all the time.
"He has a very different sense of humor," junior middle hitter/opposite Blair Brown said. "His personality when you meet him is different from his coaching" style.
The formula works for Rose, who is three wins short of 1,000 for his career. In interviews, he often tells reporters to write about his players, not him.
"I like comedy, I like comic relief. I'm not a stressful guy," Rose said. "They're young women playing a game. They should train and prepare as hard as they possibly can. There's a lot of challenges in their future ... but it's not life and death."