In her first year at college, Kathleen “Rocky’’ Rockenfield was determined to be a nurse.
“They put me to work in the hospital my first semester and I watched as they put a tube down a man’s throat,” she remembers. “I knew then I didn’t want to be a nurse.”
Then came teaching.
“I had offers to teach at Santa Rita High School and Utterback Middle School,” she says. “I look back now, 35 years later, and I’m kind of freaked out about the decisions I could have made. My life would have been so different.”
The daughter of small-town Illinois farmers, those who became part of the great migration to Phoenix in the late 1950s, chose to be a softball coach.
Her arrival at Arizona was serendipitous. The father of her best friend, a man who drove a Clover Club potato chip truck in Phoenix, happened to work with the husband of Barbara Hedges. Yes, THAT Barbara Hedges, who would become one of the pioneers of women’s athletics at Arizona, USC and Washington.
“Barbara kept telling my friend that we had to go to the UA,” she says. “We drove to Tucson and met Mary Roby. End of story.”
Roby was the matriarch, the architect of women’s sports at Arizona. She hired Rocky, the school’s 1978 Homecoming Queen, to be the school’s head softball coach. She was 21.
“I thought I had hit the lottery,” Rocky says. “I became one of the first in women’s athletics to get a full scholarship. Then I got to work for Mary. It was magical.”
On Tuesday, after emptying from her office more than 30 years of memorabilia, Rocky LaRose retired at the top of her game. She became, as Roby, an institution at the institution.
“She walks the walk,” says Tracy Shake, program coordinator of the UA Arthritis Center, who, under LaRose’s direction, helped to implement and operate Arizona’s ground-breaking Center for Athletics Total Success (CATS) program 21 years ago. “She’s a role model in the industry and yet she’s caring, humble and unselfish.”
On Saturday evening, the UA will stage a retirement celebration for LaRose at Arizona Stadium. It won’t be recognition for longevity but rather for achievement.
What hasn’t she gone through? As she became the longest-serving Senior Women’s Athletics administrator/deputy AD in Pac-12 history, LaRose survived a failed back surgery, then a more complex, corrective surgical procedure. She twice prevailed against cancer. She endured a divorce, the firings of coaches she had helped to hire, the deaths of football and basketball players, NCAA eligibility/compliance fiascos, arrests of prominent athletes and complex, soap-opera type interpersonal relationships of athletes and coaches.
If she wrote a book about behind-the-scenes drama at McKale Center, it would be a best-seller. The boat rocked; she did not.
“Rocky is not a highly emotional, up-and-down person,” says Cedric Dempsey, the UA’s former AD and executive director of the NCAA. “She’s very steady, very professional. I was impressed not only with her intellect and insights, but her feel for administration and the way she dealt with people. She is a rock.”
LaRose had opportunities to reach out and run her own athletic department, all of which she deferred. “She was sought-after,” says Dempsey. When Washington State’s Marcia Saneholtz retired in 2007, after 28 years near the top of WSU’s athletic department, it was noted that LaRose became the league’s ranking women’s athletic figure.
But that was a bit twisted; LaRose long ago ceased to be limited by gender.
After deciding that she didn’t want to be a nurse, a teacher or a coach, LaRose was hired as Roby’s first full-time assistant. She was an event manager, a compliance officer, a schedule-maker and a financial analyst.
“I was a catch-all,” she says. “It was the best training you could get. A few years later, we merged with the men’s athletic department. The whole world opened up to me.”
Over the last few weeks, at a series of we-hate-to-see-you-go gatherings — “there has been a lot of crying,” she says — LaRose steeled herself for the biggest move of her life.
Someone created a sign in the parking garage. It said “we will miss you.” About 200 athletes, from every conceivable sport on campus, gathered at McKale Center for a surprise farewell celebration.
A few people even manufactured those “Fathead” placards, oversized images of LaRose in her softball days. It was as if she had come full circle.
A few months ago, LaRose discovered some photographs from the 1979 softball season; she was a 21-year-old interim head coach/cleanup hitter for a pre-NCAA program lacking dugouts and travel money, a by-the-seat-of-your-pants team playing on a plot of grass with a makeshift fence. The UA uniforms didn’t even have jersey numbers.
One of the images shows LaRose running toward home, the winning run in the conference championship game against the Sun Devils. She didn’t just touch home plate; her feet are about 2 feet off the ground, arms outstretched, a moment of joy.
It would come to typify her career. She would do more than just touch the plate.