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Penn State's volleyball coach takes blunt approach

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Clad in his usual sweatshirt and sweatpants, Russ Rose strolled across the volleyball court in Rec Hall, blue binder in hand, occasionally craning his neck under the net to see who was hitting the ball as each kill landed with a thud on the hardwood floor.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Clad in his usual sweatshirt and sweatpants, Russ Rose strolled across the volleyball court in Rec Hall, blue binder in hand, occasionally craning his neck under the net to see who was hitting the ball as each kill landed with a thud on the hardwood floor.

"Come on, let's go to my office," he said.

As his team scrimmaged a few courts over, Rose, the Penn State women's volleyball coach, stopped in front of three wooden containers, rolled one aside and boxed himself in near the corner of the gym.

"Welcome to my office," he said.

The moment was classic Rose: humble and down to earth, but delivered with a wit as sharp as his team's record 98-game winning streak, which began in 2007 and has produced two consecutive NCAA championships.

It is the longest NCAA Division I winning streak in women's sports history, and the second longest of all time behind Miami's 137 straight match wins in men's tennis. He recently passed John Wooden's 88-game win streak in men's basketball at UCLA from 1971-74 and North Carolina's 92-game win streak in women's soccer from 1990-94.

"We've been fortunate that we've been on a hot streak as of late," said Rose, 56, who has 997 career wins and has coached here for the last 31 years, 13 shy of Joe Paterno's 44. He's turned down both professional and collegiate jobs in favor of sticking around Happy Valley. (And yes, he does have a real office.)

Though the games on the other side of campus at Beaver Stadium get much more attention, the volleyball matches are an experience in themselves. A pep band plays traditional Penn State fight songs, the Nittany Lions' mascot gets the crowd pumped, and cheerleaders perform in front of a bubbly and enthused Rec Hall crowd that can exceed 1,500 at times.

And while the buzz around campus is the football team's date with LSU in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day, the volleyball team is gearing up for its NCAA regional semifinal match against Florida tonight in Gainesville with the streak on the line after sweeping a pesky Penn squad last weekend.

"To be an Ivy League team and to play the giant, it was very intimidating and we were a little nervous knowing we had to play the best team in the nation," Penn coach Kerry Carr said yesterday.

"I would describe him [Rose] as one of the brightest coaches I have ever known. He is someone that I feel I can talk to about anything coaching-wise or non-coaching wise. The man works harder than anyone I've ever known."

Rose, with his salt-and-pepper hair and admitted "smart-ass" attitude, seems to have all the right stuff. He's brutally honest - and will tell you that himself - and tries not to recruit women who are overly sensitive.

"I look at it as, they're not my girlfriends so I don't care if they're mad at me for pointing out things they need to do to be a better player or a better teammate or a better daughter and sometimes a better girlfriend," Rose said. "I don't have a problem saying what needs to be said.

"Because my approach to interaction is to tell people what I think - and so, because of that, I think it's important that players can handle the truth and that they're responsible and accountable for the decisions that they make all the time," Rose said. "Decisions always have repercussions."

But for Rose, each decision seems to be right on point. He's got several all-Americans on his team - Blair Brown, Megan Hodge and Arielle Wilson - and they all seem to adore him.

"He's more about, 'If you want to be a Penn Stater, then come,' " Wilson said. "I think I really enjoy the fact that I wanted to be here, rather than him trying to persuade me to come."

Rose said he needs to be honest when trying to persuade players to come to Penn State. "The recruiting process is about telling the truth and trying to find players you feel are going to fit into your program, as well as painting an accurate picture of what happens once they arrive at Penn State," he said. "I would think it's more principle. The principle is, you're going to get more out of people if you treat them honestly and fairly than if you lie to them to get them to come and once they come, you change your story."

Earlier in the year, Penn State set a volleyball attendance record at McGonigle Hall against Temple. "I thought they carried themselves in an incredibly professional way on the court," said Temple setter Jackie Morrison. "They didn't take us lightly at all. They have some amazing players on their team. It's easy to let it get to your head, but those girls were very modest about their abilities. Russ Rose obviously trains them not only in volleyball but also in professionalism."

Rose is one of only a few coaches on campus who knows what it's like to deal with students both in and out of the classroom. A requirement that all coaches teach at the university was waived several years ago, but you can still find Rose in the classroom a few days a week.

The Nebraska grad, who holds a degree in health and physical education, teaches a class on ethics in athletic coaching. Ironically, the class is only offered in the fall, when Rose and his team are sort of busy - breaking records, winning Big Ten titles (seven in a row), that sort of thing.

"I look at it as, when I signed on to coach here 31 years ago I signed on to be a coach and a teacher - and just because I have an opening that I can get out of it, that's not how I am," Rose said.

So then, what makes the man who conducts interviews wedged behind a three-foot high storage container on wheels tick?

"I think I'm hard on the players but I think it has to be fun," he said. "I think that's what my job should be: To challenge them to make them better, to challenge them to make them tough."

Challenge them to a third straight NCAA title.