The University of Arizona did not qualify for the NCAA Golf Championships that will be played this week at Riviera CC in Los Angeles. And that means that Coach Rick LaRose was denied one last opportunity to lead his charges onto college golf’s biggest stage. LaRose, stepping down as the head coach, is one of the all-time great college golf coaches. If you played for him, you never forget about him; he impacted lives, which is all you want from educators.
LaRose came to college golf in a curious fashion. He was a swimmer and aquatics coach before he hit the links. Before finding golf, LaRose was an All-American in the pool at Brockport State in New York. During the NCAA’s one year in Southern California, he decided he might like to live there, so he moved to the Golden Bear state after graduation and got a high school aquatics coaching job. After setting aside the notion of pursuing a professional golf career, he went to work at the University of Arizona, where he would coach for 39 years. Initially, he coached water polo while getting a masters degree in secondary education. When the golf coach retired, the athletic director offered LaRose the job because “he thought I knew something about the game.” It turned out that he knew plenty, and he shared it for the next 34 years.
LaRose proceeded to establish Arizona as one of the elite college golf programs in America. Beginning in 1987, he led the Wildcats to a streak of 21 consecutive appearances at the NCAA Championships, the fifth-longest streak in NCAA history. Additionally, the Wildcats qualified for the NCAA Regional 22 times in 23 seasons since the format was introduced in 1989, and Arizona’s six Regional championships rank third nationally.
LaRose was head coach for both the men’s and women’s programs for two different tenures, and he is the only coach in NCAA history to win both a men’s (1992) and women’s (1996) national championship. His men’s teams were ranked in the top 20 in 26 of those 34 seasons, and his teams won seven NCAA Regional championships, four Pac-10 crowns and three Rolex Match Play titles. LaRose was inducted into the Golf Coaches Association of America’s Hall of Fame in 2003.
LaRose always thought of himself as a teacher. “We coach, but we are also here to prepare these kids for the rest of their life,” he said. And so his athletes also excelled in the classroom; he mentored 12 All-American scholars, a Rhodes Scholar, a Walter Beyers NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship winner, seven top Student-Athlete of the Year selections, and he produced a graduation rate of more than 80 percent.
PGA Tour winner Ted Purdy, who played for LaRose from 1992-96, captured the essence of LaRose when he told me, “Rick is the guy who recruited Jim Furyk.” By that, he meant that LaRose cared little for aesthetics, he cared only about results.
There was no coddling in the LaRose regime. As Harry Rudolph, a member of the ’92 team, pointed out, “Rick was all about score. It was the responsibility of the player to find his own work regimen, to learn self-discipline and manage your time.”
Furyk concurred, telling The Post last week, “I can still hear him saying ‘I will treat you like men as long as you act like men.’ He gave me a lot of freedom.”
Observed Steve Loy, president of Gaylord Sports and a former college golf coach who squared off against LaRose frequently during his 10 years at Arkansas and Arizona State: “I always admired Rick. He was tough to beat. I think we brought out the competitive best in each other and in our teams, and we walked away with mutual respect.”
Sentiments like this can be heard throughout the college golf community.
LaRose is of a generation of college golf coaches who worked tirelessly to promote this part of the game, and to bring it into the modern era. Some, like Randy Lein, left before him. Others, like Buddy Alexander and Dwaine Knight, continue to do what they do best.
The new generation, represented by Josh Gregory at Southern Methodist, Nick Clinard at Auburn, and Tim Mickelson at Arizona State, should be forever grateful to those like LaRose who came before them. The salaries, recruiting budgets and state-of-the-art practice facilities are the fruit of the previous generation’s vision and determination.
What’s changed in the college game over the years?
LaRose believes, “The best players may not be as good as the best players in the past. But the depth of talent is the biggest change. We’re getting athletes now – bigger, stronger kids with better equipment than ever before and years of great instruction.”
While he wouldn’t name a favorite player (“They are my children, so you can’t have favorites”), he did cite two teams that stand out in his memories – the 1992 men’s team that won in Albuquerque and featured Furyk, and the 1996 women’s team that included national champion Marisa Baena.
LaRose said he will miss having a team. He will miss the players and the competition, but he will not miss the recruiting, the paperwork, and the NCAA compliance requirements. He will retire on July 1 and become a part-time special assistant to Director of Athletics Greg Byrne. His duties will include fundraising, primarily focusing on raising money for a golf practice facility.
“He spent a long time at Arizona and will always be a Wildcat at heart,” said Furyk.
The college game has been very well served by LaRose, as has the University of Arizona. It’s great to see the institution treat a retiring coach with the respect and dignity he so deserves.