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Lee Rose, widely deemed best coach in USF basketball history, dies at 85

The Kentucky native led the Bulls to their first three postseason tournament berths.
Former USF men's basketball coach Lee Rose compiled a 106-69 mark with the Bulls and led the program to its first three postseason tournament berths.
Former USF men's basketball coach Lee Rose compiled a 106-69 mark with the Bulls and led the program to its first three postseason tournament berths. [ Times (1981) ]
Published Apr. 5|Updated Apr. 6

Former USF men’s basketball coach Lee Rose, who guided the Bulls to their first three postseason berths and still is widely considered the greatest coach in program history, died Tuesday.

Rose, who had Alzheimer’s disease, was 85.

“The intensity that comes with being a winner, he made sure that it was felt top to bottom,” said Tony Grier, who played his final two seasons for Rose and remains seventh on the Bulls’ career scoring list.

A plain-spoken Kentucky native, Rose’s hiring at USF — a program less than a decade old — was considered a coup when announced on April 3, 1980. He already had led UNC Charlotte (1977) and Purdue (1980) to the Final Four when the allure of a palatial arena (the Sun Dome) and an oral commitment of USF evolving into a first-class program led him to Tampa.

One of only two Bulls coaches to post a winning record with the program (Seth Greenberg is the other, 108-100), Rose was 106-69 in six seasons for the program’s best win percentage (.606) by far.

“This is the ultimate compliment that I think I could pay him as someone who worked for him: We felt like if we — meaning the staff — could get him into the last five minutes of a game, he could win it for us,” said veteran ESPN college basketball analyst Mark Wise, who served in various capacities on Rose’s staffs at USF.

“He was that good.”

Setting the tone of his tenure immediately, Rose chewed out practically every player at his first team meeting (held at the old USF gym) for slouching in their seats, Grier recalled. From there, every detail was chronicled.

A ratings scale was established in practice, with points awarded (for scoring, assists, charges taken, etc.) and deducted (for turnovers, bad fouls, etc.). The team began staying in a local hotel the night before home games to minimize distractions. Tardiness was a cardinal sin.

“He used to have a saying: ‘You don’t have to be on time for anything we do, just make damn sure you’re early,’ ” Wise recalled.

In Rose’s first season, the Bulls — 6-21 the season before — went 18-11 and qualified for the NIT, the program’s first postseason berth. His teams made two more NIT appearances and never had a losing campaign in his six seasons.

“Honestly, I always felt like he was just a brilliant, brilliant coach,” said Tommy Tonelli, a fiery point guard for Rose who earned his 500th career win at Wharton High last season.

“He just knew the game, the X’s and O’s of the game, the strategy and breaking down his opponents and preparation. ... Every game, there was a written, detailed game plan, and it was always spot-on. We just had to go out and do our job.”

The Bulls’ first two wins against Florida came on Rose’s watch; he also went 4-0 against Florida State. Among the players he recruited to USF: Robinson High alumnus Charlie Bradley, still the program’s career scoring leader, and Tonelli, still among the program’s career assist leaders.

“It was an honor to be coached by him,” said Tonelli, who led Wharton to its second state tournament appearance last season. “Everything I’ve ever done as a coach, he’s had a big, big impact on my philosophy and my approach to coaching.”

Over time, Rose’s relationship with USF’s administration soured. Dick Bowers, the athletic director who hired him and with whom Rose had helped draft the constitution of the old Sun Belt Conference, was reassigned. And the school ultimately succumbed to public pressure to play the University of Tampa.

For Rose, who didn’t equate playing a Division II foe with “first class,” that was the final straw.

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll play them, but that’s not what I came here for,’ " Rose told the Tampa Bay Times in 2017.

His 1985-86 team topped the Spartans by 12 points in what would be his next-to-last game as coach. Rose resigned shortly thereafter.

USF has had 12 winning records in the 36 seasons since.

Rose amassed a 388-162 mark as a college coach in all and also served as an assistant for four NBA teams after leaving USF.

“In life, people come in contact with others and a lot of times we don’t know the reason,” Grier said.

“I can say I speak for all the other guys, all the lessons that he taught all came to fruition with our own children and our kids that we coached. ... It’s important to understand that change, as tough as it is and can be, it turns into being something that ultimately makes you a better person.”

Rose is survived by his wife, Eleanor, and two sons, Mike and Mark.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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