In his 15th year as head coach, Mark Rosen looks to take Michigan to the next level

File Photo/Daily
Buy this photo

By Lev Facher, Daily Sports Writer
Published September 16, 2013

Mark Rosen has been the head coach of the Michigan volleyball team since 1999. He’s amassed an all-time record of 295-178 and earned 12 NCAA Tournament bids, five of which have led to Sweet 16 appearances.

Despite his experience, Rosen is in unfamiliar territory in 2013. Fresh off the program’s first-ever Final Four berth in 2012, the 10th-ranked Wolverines are dealing with sky-high expectations, both from within the program and the rankings.

“Our goal is a national championship,” Rosen said. “No doubt.”

Rosen has already coached one team to a national championship, but not at this level — he won it all in his first year as the head coach of Division II Northern Michigan in 1994. Getting that far in the Big Ten, though, is an entirely different animal.

The American Volleyball Coaches Association ranked Michigan (7-1) seventh in its preseason poll, the highest preseason ranking the program has ever received in its 41-year history.

But Rosen is taking nothing for granted.

“We never discuss rankings,” Rosen said. “It doesn’t come up. Those rankings don’t win us any games, and aside from that, there’s always a debate about their accuracy.”

But not all the hype can be so easily dismissed. The Wolverines were also recognized on the field at Michigan Stadium on Sept. 7 during the football team’s nighttime tilt with Notre Dame, where an NCAA-record crowd of 115,109 greeted them with a standing ovation.

“They reserve that opportunity for really special things,” Rosen said, recalling that he had to explain to the freshmen and sophomores on the team that being honored on the field at the Big House is not, in fact, normal.

Being recognized on the field during a football game has been a longtime goal of Rosen’s, and finally getting the chance after 14 years at Michigan was validation for all the work that has gone into building up the program to its current level.

“A lot of people came here before this team and didn’t get that opportunity, because they didn’t earn it,” Rosen said.

If there’s anybody who has earned it, though, it’s Rosen, who recorded his 500th win as a head coach on Aug. 31 in a three-set decision at Xavier. Rosen acknowledged the achievement’s significance, but deflected credit to his team and the rest of his coaching staff.

“It sounds cliché,” Rosen said, “but I don’t really watch those milestones very much.”

Rosen’s path to Michigan would have been difficult to predict early in his life. Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, Rosen took a circuitous route to becoming Michigan’s sixth head coach. After earning his degree in physical education from Cal State Northridge, Rosen made coaching appearances at Northern Michigan, Boise State and Cal State Bakersfield before landing in Ann Arbor.

As unlikely as Rosen’s journey from Anchorage to Ann Arbor may have been, he hasn’t had to do it alone — Rosen’s wife, Leisa, is Michigan’s associate head coach. A fellow Alaskan and former volleyball standout at Ohio State, Leisa had known Mark casually since her high-school years. The couple began dating after a chance encounter in Los Angeles at the 1991 Final Four, which Mark attended as a coach and Leisa as a player for Ohio State.

Her alma mater, though, is an afterthought at this point — she’s also been coaching at Michigan for 15 years, and her comparatively brief career as a Buckeye is far in the past.

“Leisa’s a great coach,” Rosen said. “Had she not been married to me and had we not been doing this together, she would have very much gone on somewhere else to be a head coach.”

The uncommon husband-wife coaching combination doesn’t strike Rosen as odd — he grew up in a similar family structure. Rosen’s father made a living as an accountant, and Rosen’s mother ran the business’ computer department.

Rosen thoroughly believes that the family atmosphere is a positive for the program in terms of recruiting and the way it operates in general.

“We care greatly about our players, not just as athletes but as student-athletes and as people,” Rosen said. “That’s a lot easier since we have that husband-wife, family atmosphere here.”

Even though the two have been coaching together since 1998, it hasn’t always been so easy. When Mark was the head coach at Cal State Bakersfield in the early 1990s, Leisa was denied a position as an assistant coach because the school’s athletic department wasn’t comfortable with the duo coaching together.

Boise State thought otherwise, though, and hired Mark and Leisa as the head coach and recruiting coordinator, respectively, in 1998. After posting an 18-9 record, the couple jumped at a pair of offers from Michigan, where they’ve been ever since.

The Rosens have loved their time in Ann Arbor, but having their family so thoroughly intertwined with the Michigan volleyball program presents its fair share of challenges in addition to the perks that come with it — especially for the Rosens’ two sons, Brady and Cameron.

“There are benefits, of course, like when they get to be around the football atmosphere (against Notre Dame), the volleyball atmosphere,” Rosen said.

But the 15-year veteran also acknowledged that the regular season can be hectic from a parenting perspective. The constant weekend road trips, weeknight games and the grind of year-round recruiting make it more difficult to be as present as he and Leisa would like.

“We try a lot during the offseason to make sure one of us is here all the time,” Rosen said. “That allows us to be a little more normal during the other eight months of the year.”

Normal or not, they are at the helm of a team that, for the first time in their careers at Michigan, is a preseason national championship contender. The goal in 2013 is to take the proverbial “next step” — the leap from being a program that finds itself in the Final Four unexpectedly to being a program that expects to be there every year.

Despite their consistent success throughout Rosen’s tenure, the Wolverines have never won a Big Ten championship. The biggest reason for the drought is the presence of perennial national title contender Penn State, owner of 10 conference crowns in the last 14 years. Unsurprisingly, the Nittany Lions are ranked first nationally, and have started off their season 6-1 with their lone loss coming to No. 6 Texas.

“I think it’s great, because we see (Penn State),” Rosen said. “If we’re going to put ourselves in a position to win a national championship, we’re probably going to have to go through them at some point.”

For the first time in his career, Rosen seems ideally positioned to win that conference title and make noise on the national stage for the second year in a row. Michigan lost only one senior following last year’s Final Four run — right side hitter Claire McElheny — giving it one of the most experienced rosters in the conference.

The Wolverines have age, talent and the experience of making it to the Final Four on their side, meaning that 2013 could be the year Michigan takes that “next step” Rosen talks about so often.