(ATR) Mel Rosen was a powerful influence on generations of track and field athletes. The New York native spent his professional career in the deep south, almost three decades as the athletics coach for Auburn University.
Karen Rosen and Coach Mel Rosen at the 1987 Athletics World Championships in Rome. (Rosen Family)
He guided young athletes to the Olympics, serving as head coach for the U.S. men’s team to the Barcelona Games.
Rosen died last year, age 90. His memorial service in Auburn, Alabama, drew dozens of former athletes, emceed by one of his two daughters, Karen Rosen. While a devotee of track and field, she used her talents to become a top-notch sportswriter, including numerous assignments for Around the Rings.
On the occasion of this week’s 125th edition of the Penn Relays, an event in which Mel Rosen competed as a youngster and then dozens of times as a coach, Karen Rosen prepared a colorful remembrance of her father’s career
. The article originally appeared on the website of the Auburn sports department, www.auburntigers.com.
After Usain Bolt shattered the 100-meter dash world record at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, the writer from The Chicago Tribune came up to me. He knew I had just what he needed for his story: "Can I get your dad's number?"
My father, Mel Rosen, was not only a great coach, he was a great quote. And he returned all phone calls.
No wonder I wasn't the only sportswriter who loved him.
"I never thought I'd see this even if I lived to be 100," Dad said of Bolt's record. "We have always thought if you were going to be a great sprinter, to get even better you had to have an incredible stride length or turnover. Bolt is the first to have both."
Dad delivered keen analysis laced with humor. He gave the reporter from The Auburn Plainsman — rookie sportswriters were often assigned track stories to break them in gently — the same courtesy as the reporter from The New York Times.
When The Times asked Dad about drawing the inside lane for the 200, he said, "The only place I'd take Lane 1 would be on the moon. Even there it would be tight."
Unfortunately, my editors at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wouldn't allow me to quote my father when he was the head U.S. men's coach at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. I was assigned to cover the women's team, but my colleagues kept asking me to get information from Dad about the men. He said, "Just tell them, 'A source who used to change my diaper said…"
When we were at the same meet, Dad would go to the press box – which was usually in the shade and had a good view – to find me. Anybody else's dad probably would have been kicked out. But I don't know who was happier to see him – me or the other "scribes," as Dad called them.
I was the lucky recipient of the goodwill Dad generated in the sport. When I had to do an in-depth story on Bolt for USA Today, I called Dad. He said, "Here, let me give you his coach's number." And when I contacted the press-shy coach and dropped my father's name, he immediately agreed to the interview.
AN AUBURN INSTITUTION
Dad and I took pictures together in stadiums around the world, including Moscow, Havana, Rome, Los Angeles and Athens (Greece, though we also went to meets in Athens, Georgia). Dad was a worldwide ambassador for Auburn. When we toured the Parthenon, he wore an Auburn hat and shirt and exchanged several "War Eagles."
Our first stadium photo is a candid shot from the Auburn track. It shows us studying the automatic timing photo. My officiating career began with ringing the bell for the final lap, then I graduated to "reading the picture" as a teenager.
Although I sometimes ran in the "All-Comers" meets at the track, Dad competed only once – in the Father-Son relay. He won, of course, with a real ringer: Harvey Glance.
Dad didn't just coach at Auburn. He also was an assistant professor in the P.E. department. In 1963, he made the national news for the first time by introducing track classes for women.
The story said the "experimental class in physical education" was "under the smiling direction of Auburn's newly appointed varsity track coach."
Dad estimated he taught more than 40,000 students over the years in classes that also included racquetball and gymnastics. He never flunked a student. "I worried they might come back and find me," he said.
Well, they did, but no one was mad at him. "It's good to see you!" they'd say. "Good to be seen!" he'd reply.
Three years ago, Dad received a letter from the son of one of his cousins. Barry Dickstein had just read the book, "From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen" by AU professor Craig Darch.
Barry remembered Dad staying overnight while on a recruiting trip to Maryland in the 1960s. Barry was only eight or nine and didn't think it was a big deal at the time. A couple of weeks later, a package arrived addressed to him.
"When I opened the package I could not have been more excited as inside it was filled with Auburn pennants, pictures and other team souvenirs," he wrote. "Talk about making an impression! For a young boy crazy about sports, I could not have asked for anything better. Auburn Tigers fan for life!"
Dad was a young boy crazy about sports growing up in Brooklyn, where he was a member of the famous "Knothole Gang" at Dodgers games. He told me he was there when they famously tried out a yellow baseball, but I was more impressed that on his way home from school one day he saw the Hindenburg fly overhead on its final flight.
Years later, when Dad received awards he'd say "I'd like to thank my high school football coach, basketball coach and baseball coach -- for cutting me. That's why I went out for track and field."
My mom Joan liked to say he had a "one track mind."
FROM YANKEE TO Y'ALL
Dad ran the quarter mile — bragging that his best time was 52.2 in the snow — and half mile.
He went to college at Iowa because he wanted to go to a Big Ten school. He became acquainted with the Deep South when he was in the Army and stationed at Fort Benning. Dad was in Officer Candidate School and said the first time the drill sergeant screamed in his face he knew he'd made a terrible mistake. He taught marksmanship — so that's what happened to his hearing! — and coached the base track team. Dad said he was excited when they traveled to their first meet, but his athletes got crushed. That's how he discovered the Fort Benning track was a few yards short.
When Dad found out about a job opening at Auburn in 1955, he went for it. It didn't matter that it was to be a gymnastics instructor. Of course, he didn't know anything about gymnastics. So he bought a book for $1.50 and before each class found a short, stocky kid to be his demonstrator. Eventually, Dad convinced track coach Wilbur Hutsell to take him on as an assistant, and in 1963 they switched places, with Dad becoming head coach.
Dad said that when he came home from his first cross country meet, Mom said, "How did you do?" He said, "We lost to Florida." Mom replied, "I can't believe it. Coach Hutsell never lost."
One of Dad's former AU athletes told me that if Dad was cussing at them, they knew that meant he liked them. I said to him, "Your athletes say you used to cuss at them."
He said, "They lie like a rug."
Dad used to tell a story about the shuttle hurdle relay in which an Auburn athlete knocked over every hurdle. Sitting in the stands at the Penn Relays, Dad laughed and laughed. Someone said, "Why are you laughing?" Dad replied, "What do you want me to do? Cry?"
James Walker, a star Auburn hurdler in the late 1970s, was in Eugene, Oregon, for a big meet when his eyes had an allergic reaction to the pollen. "I can't see," he told
Dad. "What should I do?" Dad's reply: "Count to three and jump."
When Bo Jackson ran indoor track, he missed the plane to the NCAA meet even though he was at the airport. On the trip home, Bo made sure he didn't get left behind.
Dad said that when he went in the gift shop, "There was Bo." He stopped to get a drink of water, "There was Bo."
Every few years a sportswriter would call Dad to ask about the time Bo ran against Herschel Walker. Dad had to break the news that it never happened. They competed in the same meet at Auburn, but in different races.
At each SEC meet, Dad had a little piece of paper on which he'd predicted all of the scoring. If things didn't go well, he had the 15-minute rule. You could only be upset for 15 minutes. He used to say, "If it wasn't for injuries and eligibility, ain't nothing to this coaching."
He had an encyclopedic knowledge of track and field, remembering names, years and best times.
I once asked Dad about a runner named Joe who apparently wasn't very fast. "Let me put it this way," Dad said. "Last, next to last, hi Joe."
After Dad retired, he still went to track practice every day to help out. Ty Akins and Reuben McCoy joke that when Dad timed them at practice, he'd say, "Damn! I missed it! Go again."
After he stopped going to practice regularly, he still enjoyed dropping by and meeting the new athletes. He asked a freshman javelin thrower how far he could throw and was told 217 feet. "So," Dad said, "if I stand 218 feet away, you can't hit me?"
KEEPING PRIORITIES STRAIGHT
If you said to Dad, "What's the most important thing in life?" He would reply, "Beat Alabama."
Well, aside from that, it was our family.
My parents married in 1957 and had a car accident on their way to Panama City, Florida, for their honeymoon when Dad swerved to miss a dog. Mom broke both her legs and Dad broke some ribs. When Mom would sit outside their apartment in downtown Auburn to get some sun, Dad would have to round up passers-by – including Auburn football players -- to help carry her back up the stairs.
When my sister Laurie and I were growing up, Dad always had a track meet on the day of Laurie's dance recital. But he never missed the dress rehearsal. Dad had Laurie in his track class at Auburn and he was my marathon coach many years later. He got me through the New York City Marathon, but Laurie never did get over the hurdles. Still, she came to class every day so she got an A.
When my nephew Nathaniel was about five years old, Dad watched him play soccer and thought he could help him with his form. Nathaniel said, "What do you know about running, Grandpa?"
My niece Chelsea took Dad's racquetball class. She said, "Do I call you Grandpa?" He said, "No! Call me Coach!"
Dad went to the office early every weekday and would make calls to touch base with people around the country.
I was always first. "Get up!" he would say. Then we'd talk about what we were doing that day. "Take care of your business," he would tell me.
I once told a friend about my wake-up calls and she was envious. I let Dad know and he said, "What's her number? I'll call her, too!" And he did.
When I was planning a trip with Dad and Nathaniel to Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Cooperstown, I struck out trying to get tickets for the Bronx Bombers. So Dad called George Steinbrenner, his old pal from the Penn Relays. We wound up in the owner's box.
Dad and I wrote two books together: one about training for Sports Illustrated and the other a spectator's guide to track and field which included Dad's philosophy about running relays, "If the passer comes in on his knees and elbows, the receiver goes out on his knees and elbows."
HONORS AND ADVICE
Dad was NCAA Coach of the Year three times. He won the SEC Championship and his best finish at the NCAA meet was runner-up. He believed in "under working" his athletes during the week to keep them healthy. He always said, "If your best athlete is sitting in the stands next to you during the meet, you're in trouble."
Dad was elected head U.S. Olympic coach by his peers after years of taking teams to places like Argentina and Bulgaria for the grand sum of $10 a day.
We had planned to go as a family to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and it was a bonus when Harvey Glance made the American team. Harvey called Dad and complained that the U.S. coach was working him too hard. What should he do? "Hide under the bed," Dad told him.
By 1984 Dad was assistant coach for sprints, hurdles and relays at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games – they won gold in all of his events -- and then head men's coach for the World Championships in 1987.
At the opening ceremony for the Barcelona Olympics, Dad ran into Charles Barkley on the field and said, "Let me introduce you to some of my guys." Barkley put his arm around Dad and said to Michael Johnson and the other athletes, "Don't give my old coach any #$&@!"
The real coaching at the Games is working with the relays. There was a lot of controversy about who would be on the teams in Barcelona. Dad sent me a message through the Olympic computer system – which couldn't have been easy for him since he couldn't type – that said, "They're giving your old dad H-E-L-L."
Carl Lewis came into Barcelona as a relay alternate. When another sprinter was injured, Dad put Carl on the team as the anchor leg. Richard Quick, the former Auburn swimming coach, told me he was having lunch with Dad in the Olympic Village when Dennis Mitchell stormed up to their table. Dennis said, "I'm the national champion. If I'm not anchor, I'm not running!" Without skipping a beat, Dad said, "We'll miss you." Dennis ran the third leg, handing off to Carl for one of the greatest anchor legs in history. They set a world record that wasn't broken until 2008.
At the next Olympic Games in Atlanta, Dad was hired by Xerox to accompany their invited guests to the track. For swimming, Xerox got a guy named Mark Spitz.
Dad explained to the guests that the best sprinters were put in the middle lanes. One of them got on the bus complaining that he lost a lot of money betting on races. Dad said, "Oops, I forgot to tell them that the heats are a blind draw."
THE DEAN OF SEC TRACK
While Dad was known for his wit and humor, he was also extremely fair. He was in demand as a referee at meets across the country. At one championship, one of the women's teams had travel problems and arrived late. The long jump had already begun and everybody wanted to disqualify that team's competitor. Dad told her if she could warm up and be ready to go last in the flight, she could jump. The coach was so grateful she gave Dad a big hug.
He did bend the rules a little. After Auburn won the 4 x 400-meter relay one year at the Penn Relays, the team was disqualified for using the wrong color baton – blue instead of green. Dad told the jury of appeals that Michael Anderson squeezed the baton so hard that it changed colors. The team was reinstated.
At Dad's "Celebration of Life" last year I heard new stories. Jeff Van Slyke, an AU distance runner in the late 1970s, told me he was hit by a car while running on Dean Road. He was severely injured and knew his track career was over. While Jeff was in the hospital in upstate New York, he was surprised to see Mike Muska, the Auburn assistant coach, walk into his room. Mike said, "Coach Rosen sent me to tell you that you can keep your scholarship. You can be the team manager." Scholarships were few and far between, but that's how Dad operated.
He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame – he was in the same class as FloJo -- and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. When Dad was in Israel for the ceremony, he overheard someone saying, "I know Rosen, but who's this Koufax fellow?"
Dad was sometimes mistaken for another coach, Indiana's Sam Bell. When Dad was in Bloomington for a meet, he was walking down the street when a new Hoosiers assistant athletic director called out, "Hey Sam, how's the team going to be this year?" Dad replied, "Great! If we don't win the NCAA, you should fire me."
Dad was honored when his name joined Coach Hutsell's on the Auburn track. He had a favorite place he would sit during meets, leaning back against the press box. Former and current athletes would come by to say hello, and Dad would talk to them while still making sure he caught the start of each race with his stopwatch.
When Dad went into assisted living, he was still quick with a quip and he would coach in his sleep. He kept the staff laughing.
One day an aide said, "Hey Coach, how fast do you think I could run 100?" Dad said, "Because I'm a gentleman, I won't say." She said, "What if you weren't a gentleman?" Dad replied, "Allllllll day."
At one of his doctors' appointments, the doctor said, "Do you feel like you have energy?" Dad said, "Yeah, from 7 o'clock in the morning until 5 ... after 7."
One day I asked Dad, "Do you have any advice?"
"For a high school coach?" he said.
"No, for me."
"Always try to do your best."
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