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Rheta Johnson: Mel Rosen ran the distance

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

Mel Rosen is a liberal Jewish Democrat from Brighton Beach, New York, who in 1955 arrived at conservative, football-obsessed Auburn University in the segregated Deep South. He was hired to teach gymnastics and assigned seven daily classes. His dream was to coach track. 

 

"I didn't know anything about gymnastics, but I bought a book for $1.50 and at the start of each class I found a short, stocky kid to be my demonstrator." 

 

His rented room cost $25 a month, and he paid another $25 monthly for Southern food he didn't like. "I've never eaten grits yet." He was making $3,360 a year and happy to be there.  

 

Dreams take time to realize. Rosen figures he taught 40,000 students during his 37 years at Auburn. In 1992, after serving 28 years as Auburn's head track coach, Rosen was selected to coach United States track and field at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. The U.S. team won a record 20 medals. Rosen was the first Jewish head coach ever for U.S. track. 

 

A letter from the U.S. Olympic Committee's Bob Paul said, "Just remember, Mel, there will be 260 million people watching your every move." 

 

With characteristic dry wit and humility, Rosen wrote back: "There might be 260 million people watching, but in Auburn there will be 20,000 people who won't know I left town." 

 

That's not exactly right. While our football coaches make millions and Rosen retired making only $44,000, almost everyone at my alma mater Auburn knew his name. Most of us appreciated the obvious part of his story: consistent coaching and recruiting success. 

 

I am privileged to know Coach Rosen personally because his sportswriter daughter, Karen Rosen, is a good friend. At a dinner I shared with him in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics, Rosen shrugged off the great honor of being assistant coach for the U.S. track team, which included the legendary athlete Carl Lewis. "What? I'm going to tell the fastest man in the world how to run?" 

 

Rosen's journey from Brooklyn to Barcelona is told with great care and social insight in a new book by Auburn professor Craig Darch. "From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen" is the result of six years of interviews with Rosen -- once a week Darch fed Rosen chocolate; Rosen talked. Darch painstakingly fills in gaps with great detail. Rosen's quotes keep it lively. At signings Rosen has a story about every former athlete who buys a book. 

 

Rosen's triumphs came both on and off the track. He recruited African-American and Jewish runners for the first time ever. His most famous protege, Harvey Glance, won gold in Montreal and was so close to Rosen he called him "Daddy." Rosen coached football legend Bo Jackson, telling Jackson he'd have to lose 30 pounds to make the 1984 Olympic track team. Bo did not. 

 

Rosen remains firm, fair and funny. At 86 he remembers everything from arcane track and field statistics to the exact spot in Washington Heights where he saw the Hindenburg in 1937. Rosen still reads Track and Field cover to cover and stays involved with Auburn track. 

 

Daughter Karen says she's benefited her entire professional life from the good will Mel Rosen created. "Everybody loved him." Father and daughter once wrote a track text together.  

 

He never flunked a single one of those 40,000 kids he taught. "I worried they might come back and find me." 

 

 

 

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