Profile: Dexter’s Rosen duo building elite volleyball program at U-M

When Mark Rosen became head coach of the Michigan volleyball team he asked his wife Leisa for a little “inside volleyball” on the Wolverines. When Leisa Rosen was Leisa Wissler she was a standout player at Ohio State where during her senior year she was Big Ten Conference Player of the Year, AVCA All-America Second Team and Ohio State Female Athlete of the Year.

So Mark asked his wife what her thoughts of Michigan were when she was a player.

Her response? “The weekend off.”

In 18 years at the helm of Michigan’s volleyball program, Mark Rosen is the winningest volleyball coach in Michigan’s history (363 wins and a .610 win percentage) despite competing in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
Michigan has accomplished many things over those 18 seasons. They’ve also erased one big opinion – they are no longer “the weekend off.”

“Michigan just didn’t have a strong volleyball tradition at that time,” he said.

“They had only been in the NCAA Tournament one time before we got here.”

The Rosens – Leisa has been the associate head coach all 18 years and is a key component to the program’s incredible rise – looked at that as a challenge. An opportunity. Because after all, Michigan has a lot going for it starting with the fact that it’s, well, Michigan.

“When we saw the university we saw no limits,” Rosen said. “We saw no reason this couldn’t be a top program. It made it even more exciting to come here. We knew we had some work to do but we also knew there were advantages here that no one else could match.”

The 20th ranked Wolverines are 10-3 on the season. All three losses have been against top-25 teams, including Friday’s four-set loss to No. 1 ranked Minnesota in the Wolverines’ Big Ten opener.

Carly Skjodt, a standout junior outside hitter and one of the leaders on this year’s team, is a huge fan of Coach Rosen.

“Mark is awesome,” she said last month. “It’s a really great combo with Leisa. Mark knows the game of volleyball and he’s calm and consistent when we need him to be but knows when to get on us when we need that.”

Rosen was born and raised in Alaska and grew up on the ice, not the court.

“I played hockey growing up but I always liked the idea of being a coach when I grew up,” he said. “I played hockey all through high school so I figured that’s what I would end up coaching.”

Rosen’s interest in volleyball began like most peoples – because of a girl and a chance to skip school for a week. Two good reasons for a teenager.

“My senior year of high school I was dating a girl who played volleyball and the teams were going to Canada for a week so I figured if I tried out and made the team I would get a week off of school,” he said.

“I didn’t make the hockey team so I tried out for the volleyball team. Eleven guys tried out for 10 spots so I beat out one guy.”

While the girlfriend didn’t last and Rosen eventually had to go back to school, his love for volleyball developed quickly.

“I was terrible but I kind of just fell in love with it,” he said.

Rosen played on the club volleyball team at Oregon State for two years. He then transferred and played three years of varsity volleyball at California State University at Northridge.

“It was weird because by the time I was playing at Northridge I had only been playing for three years while everyone on my team had played all through high school and had grown up playing volleyball,” he said. “I was new to the sport. I even loved practice. They thought I was crazy.

“I picked up the game pretty quick. It came natural to me.”

Rosen earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education with a minor in biology from Cal-State Northridge (1985) where he was a three-time varsity volleyball letter winner.

“Then I started coaching right away. I loved it. I never thought I would do it forever but here we are,” said Rosen, who holds memberships in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) and the U.S. Volleyball Association.

Rosen got his first collegiate head coaching job at Cal-State Bakersfield, where he went a combined 57-12 and won two league titles and led the Road Runners to the D-2 National Championship game in 1993.

That success earned him a trip to Northern Michigan, where he coached for four seasons, posting an incredible 134-16 record including a National Title in 1994.

“We were a little worried about the weather, going from California to Northern Michigan,” Rosen said. “We really loved it up there. The people were great. The university was awesome. We enjoyed our time there.”

He left the Wildcats and coached one year at Boise State (18-9 in 1998) before moving to Ann Arbor in 1999.

“Our goal was always to be in the Big Ten and I didn’t think we could get there going from Division 2 even though we had a lot of success,” he said. “So we looked at Boise as sort of an intermediate stop to get some Division 1 experience. And then the next year the Michigan job opened up.”

Rosen has turned the Wolverines into a consistent winner – always good, always tough to beat. But Rosen wants more than that. It’s Michigan after all and success is measured by championships – both Big Ten and National.

“I’m proud of how far we’ve come and our successes but I’m by no means satisfied,” he said. “We want to win a National Championship. There are still steps we need to take.”

Bo Schembechler won 194 games as head coach of the Michigan football program. Red Berenson won 848 games in his 33 years behind the hockey bench and Ray Fisher managed to win 636 baseball games in his 38 years.

Rosen became the winningest coach in program history in 2008 when he notched victory No. 178 against Purdue (Oct. 10, 2008) passing Sandy Vong for the top spot among U-M coaches. He has topped the 20-win mark in 11 of his last 14 seasons and has suffered just three losing seasons in his entire head coaching career, leading his teams to 30-win seasons on five occasions and 20-win seasons in 16 of 24 career campaigns.

In his time with the Maize and Blue, Rosen has coached seven All-Americans and guided the Wolverines to NCAA post-season play 15 times. Michigan has also earned 55 wins over top-25 opponents during this period, while being ranked or receiving votes in the AVCA Top-25 poll in each of the last 10 seasons.

One of the biggest differences over the 18 years has been the growth in popularity of the game in Ann Arbor. It might have to do with the team’s rise in success. More wins usually means more fans.

“The crowd size has really changed,” Rosen said. “We sell out the arena most nights and it’s become one of the more difficult tickets to get. And it’s really been felt down on the floor by the players. It’s much different playing in that kind of environment.”

The overall level of volleyball players at the high school level have improved across the board and Michigan goes out and recruits the very best of the best.

“We have been able to attract some great players,” he said. “There has been an evolution in college volleyball just in the time I’ve been here. The level of players and the style of the game has changed dramatically. And we are on TV a lot more than we ever have been and that helps with exposure and interest.”
The Maize and Blue…no longer the weekend off.

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