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What I Learned from Russ Rose

by on December 28, 2017 5:00 AM

In the proud history of Penn State’s athletic department, the university has been blessed to attract and retain some of the greatest coaches in the history of college sports. They came and stayed not because they were mercenary hired guns just looking for the biggest payday. They believed in what was here.

Just to name a few of them, national championship winning coaches like Gene Wettstone in gymnastics, Bill Jeffrey in soccer and Cael Sanderson in wrestling would all be on their sport’s Mount Rushmore.

Women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose has also ascended to legendary status because of an approach to performance evaluation that can be successfully applied in sports and in life. Without question Russ’s reputation has transcended his sport. More than a few big-time college football coaches have even asked me about Russ Rose (including a rival Big Ten coach).

During a conversation in the offseason 10 years ago, I asked Russ about how he evaluated games, tactics and players. I’d read the book “Moneyball” and found his approach similar to the use of the unique statistical analysis highlighted in that book.

As an example, traditional baseball statisticians grade a player’s fielding percentages on how they play the balls that they get to. It leaves out an evaluation of how many other balls a player with better range would have gotten to. Moneyball raised the bar of evaluation.

Russ Rose was “analytics” and “Moneyball” before they became buzzwords in every industry. And Russ was doing it all with a pencil, paper, binders and his mind.

So in seeking an edge in football from a source outside the sport, I asked Russ about his binders.

Getting a point was never enough. He wanted to know if they could’ve won the point earlier. He wanted to know if they won the point in spite of what tactics he’d called for. He wanted to know if a player made an error that the team overcame to get that point. He also wanted — like in Moneyball — to know if a player should have gotten to a ball they didn’t get to.

His were the statistics of the possible. His were the statistics of results versus brutal, hard honest reflection of what should have been.

It gives Penn State an edge because he demands more from his players than simply winning. Wins can often breed complacency. He was not grading performance on kills, or blocks or hitting percentages. He was adding in the hits a team should have gotten to if they were where they were supposed to be and hustling to get there.

But he was also grading himself as well, and that is something that most coaches do not do. Reflecting on Russ’s approach reinforced what we’d always been challenged to do. Evaluate everything and everyone.

In evaluating our 2007, tape the statistics of the possible, of honest reflection was a vital part of the 2007-08 offseason. The approach Russ used was similar to the approach from our head coach, but sometimes it helps to have that reinforced from someone else.

We had to be consistent and definitive in our coaching, detailed in where we wanted people. I used geometric equations to make sure our spacing and route depths were correct. When we went out to practice we enforced those demands.

Our evaluation tool kit added a virtual binder approach to every practice that was unique then in college football. Every practice and every pass play in competitive drills between our offense and defense was catalogued with notes and results in my laptop. That information was used to evaluate what worked and why and more importantly what didn’t work.

From that season through 2011 we racked up a record that was among the top 10 in the nation. And the lessons remain for sports and for life.

There are bad calls that you make, but an outstanding effort or individual player gives you a result you did not deserve. Along the same line a mistake or a slip by an opponent does not make your call better, and you must recognize that you got away with it.

There are fantastic calls that never materialize because of poor execution, technique or a mental mistake by a player.  Certainly your tactics were sound, but ask yourself if you taught it effectively, or if a player’s effort was lacking. Maybe they dropped a pass or missed a block.

Matchups matter. Know your people and how they measure against their people. Your tactics may look good two-dimensionally on paper but game time means real people with varying talent levels playing in three dimensions.

As Penn State volleyball’s season concluded a few weeks ago, one wonders what the Russ Rose binders will have in store for the offseason and next fall. Penn State’s team will take the court once again with the weight of expectations and a proud tradition on their shoulders.

What we won’t wonder is whether or not the man coaching them is detailed enough in his approach for yet another championship run. And we know that the man who has been on that Penn State sideline for decades has something to teach his players and all of us about championship effort in sports and in life.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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