Thirty years ago this spring, 41 college basketball coaches were fired or retired, replaced by, among others, Rick Majerus at Utah, Dana Altman at Marshall, Bill Frieder at Arizona State and Kevin O’Neill at Marquette.
In DeKalb, Illinois, first-year Northern Illinois University athletic director Gerald O’Dell, an old Oklahoma Sooners linebackers coach, examined the three-year, 28-56 record of basketball coach Jim Rosborough and chose to be among the group of 41 schools to “part ways” with their basketball coach.
In 1989, the terminology of dismissing basketball coaches wasn’t as dignified as it is today. You didn’t part ways, you got fired. It’s not supposed to be as painless as simply parting ways, and for young Jim Rosborough, it wasn’t.
The news did not go down well at NIU. Professor Curt Norton, chairman of the NIU athletic board, resigned in protest of Rosborough’s dismissal. Norton argued that the Huskies were set for a breakout season; Rosborough started five sophomores in 1988-89 — and the man who inherited those sophomores, coach Bill Molinari, used those players to go 25-6 and get the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 1990-91.
All these years later, it remains the greatest season in NIU history.
Yet Rosborough has trumped that NIU season many times.
A month after leaving NIU, Rosborough was hired by Lute Olson to be Arizona’s lead assistant coach, saying, “The thing with Roz is that he is a premier sideline assistant, as good as any in the business.”
Over the next 30 years, Tucsonans discovered that Olson’s words were accurate. “Roz” has surely become the most notable assistant coach in Tucson history.
He spent 18 years with Olson at Arizona, which included three Final Fours and eight Pac-10 championships.
He then coached under Pima College men’s basketball coach Karl Pieroway, helping the 2010 Aztecs to what was then the best season in school history, No. 7 in the NJCAA.
Rosborough was not only an Iowa Hawkeyes basketball player and all-state forward at Illinois’ Moline High School, but also a tennis player of some skill. In 2011, he began a four-year stretch as an assistant tennis coach under UA women’s coach Vicky Maes, helping the 2014 Wildcats to a 14-0 home season, their best Pac-10 season since the 1990s.
He then moved back to basketball, an assistant coach for Pima College women’s coach Todd Holthaus. The Aztecs finished No. 3 in the NJCAA in 2016 and No. 5 in the NJCAA finals last week.
After last week’s final NJCAA game in Arkansas, Pima All-American point guard J.J. Nakai spoke about her assistant coach.
“I definitely grew as a player and as a person in my two years at Pima,” she said. “It was so helpful getting all the knowledge from the coaches, especially Roz. He taught me so much over the two years.”
Here’s what I’m getting at: The man who began his coaching career at The Corkery School on Chicago’s southwest side almost 50 years ago — he volunteered to organize and coach an eighth-grade team — should be polishing up a speech for the Hall of Fame.
In 2002, Rosborough flew home to be inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame — but he was honored as a 1960s player, not a latter-day coaching success.
Now, finally, there is an Assistant Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. It was made for coaches like Roz.
In May 7 in Atlanta, the inaugural class of “A STEP UP Assistant Coaches Hall of Fame” will be inducted. It includes Gonzaga’s Donny Daniels, who also coached at UCLA and Utah; UConn’s Chris Dailey, who has been the top assistant to Geno Auriemma for 33 years; and Steve Robinson, the lead assistant to North Carolina’s Roy Williams for 21 years.
Rosborough is one of four men in Pac-12 basketball history supremely qualified for selection. The others:
- UCLA’s Jerry Norman, who from 1956-68 was John Wooden’s top assistant coach, the man credited with creating the Bruins’ famous 2-2-1 zone press.
- Oregon State’s Jimmy Anderson, 1965-89, the top assistant to Ralph Miller during three consecutive Pac-10 championships.
- Gary Cunningham, the man who replaced Norman as UCLA’s top assistant, 1965-75, on the scene for eight national championships.
It’s not that Rosborough, 74, is planning to leave coaching.
“I wish I could do this for 10 more years, but I know it’s not realistic,” he said.
“I look back and there’s been some crazy stuff in there — women’s tennis, coaching for both basketball teams at Pima. There’s no question I get as much fun out of this as anything I’ve done.”
His is a storybook coaching career like few others.
When Olson was hired at Iowa in 1975, he connected with the former Hawkeye forward to talk about potential Iowa recruits in the Chicago area.
“What Jim lacked in experience — which was everything — he made up for with his personality, his willingness to work, his passion for the game, and his knowledge of the Chicago area,” Olson wrote in his book “Lute! The Seasons of My Life.”
“Roz has been with me for 23 years and was one of the main reasons the Iowa and Arizona programs were so successful.”
If that endorsement doesn’t get you into the Hall of Fame, what does?