Donald "Dee" Rowe

Year: 1969 - Today
Position: Coach / Leader / Legend
Hometown: Worcester, MA

Coach Donald “Dee” Rowe is in his 50th year working in athletics. Thirty-six of those years have been at the University of CT where he is the “father” of UConn basketball. He was the Head Basketball Coach from 1969 – 1977, and is the link between the 1940’s to today. Every basketball player that has played at UConn knows, loves, and respects Dee Rowe as a coach, and as a person. He retired 12 years ago but he’s still working at UConn in the position of Special Advisor for Athletics. I had the pleasure of meeting Coach Rowe in October 2004, in his office at the University of Connecticut.

His office consists of four walls of memorabilia, pictures and trophies from his teams. As he spoke of each player or game, he’d show me a picture on his wall of the specific game or person he was referring to.

Coach Rowe grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and first fell in love with the game of basketball when he was in the third grade. His gym teacher, Buster Sheary, later became the head men’s basketball coach at Holy Cross, coaching players like Tommy Heinsohn and Bob Cousy, left a lasting impression on Dee. “He was a tough task master,” Dee said. Between Buster and Dee’s dad, who took Dee to watch games at Worcester Tech, and to all the traveling pro team games that came to town, Dee began his basketball journey. Dee would put a tin can on the side of the house, and shoot tennis balls into it. He’d put a rim on the house, and shoot with the light of the kitchen window, and in the winter he’d shovel the area, and shoot with winter clothes and gloves on. He’d play anywhere he could. “I used to tell people I changed my religion every week because in the Christian Youth Organization, you’d play for the Methodist or this one or whatever church had a gym that was open.”

When Coach Rowe reached high school he attended Worcester Academy because his dad was in the service. He was captain of his basketball team as a junior and senior. His junior year the team was undefeated but they didn’t have tournaments like today. Dee went to Middlebury College in Vermont, a small college, and played basketball against some Division I teams, but mostly against other small colleges. Like in high school, there were no championships or tournaments at that time. Dee went on to graduate school, followed by time he spent in the service. Then he began his working career back at Worcester Academy, and for the next 13 years he worked as the Athletic Director, Head Baseball Coach and Basketball Coach (assistant his first year then head coach his second year). He left Worcester Academy to become the Head Basketball Coach at the University of Connecticut, where he was the head coach for eight years. He began to encounter some health issues, and gave up the head coaching job. He remained at UConn, as the Associate Director of Athletics for Development, responsible for creating the University of Connecticut Athletic Development Fund, the first of its kind in the Northeast. This fund was later merged with the UConn Club, which now consists of 5,000-6,000 members, and last year the group raised $13.8 million.

Twelve years ago, Dee retired but was asked by Athletic Director at the time Lew Perkins to stay, and take on the position of Special Advisor for Athletics where he is involved with athletic events, speaking engagements, and raising money. Although he didn’t mention it, he’s the communication link between all the players that have come through UConn. The week I visited with Coach Rowe he mentioned that he had spoken to Walt Droppo’s (UConn basketball player in the 1940’s) daughter, Worthy Patterson (UConn player from the 1950’s), and Coach Tom Moore. Tony Hanson (UConn player from the 1970’s) called Dee and while talking to Tony, Pat Sellers (new assistant coach) stopped in the office to see Dee. Since Pat knows Tony, they spoke through Dee. Toby Kimball (UConn player from the 1960’s) had also stopped in the office for a visit. Coach Rowe said “UConn is about basketball, it’s about people, it’s about friendships, it’s about bonds, and relationships. It’s awesome so that’s why I don’t just walk away.”

Coach Rowe’s best, and most memorable game was the slow down game against Rhode Island University. UConn won the Yankee Conference Championship with a score of 35-32. A game later voted as the most memorable at the Field House. Coach Rowe jokingly said, “I kid people about the 35 – 32 game. I should have quit after that game, they all thought I was a good coach.” There were some other great games too. There was a stretch where they beat Massachusetts, then Providence in the Eastern College Athletic Conference Tournament, and they went on to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament beating Hofstra, but lost to Rutgers. Another great game was beating St. Johns in the National Invitational Tournament.

Coach Rowe said his best team was the team that went to the Final 16 in 1976, and won the New England Championship, and the ECAC Tournament. The best player he ever coached was Tony Hanson. Tony was the player of the year in New England during his four years, he scored 1990 points—the second most in the school’s history, and the teams that Tony was on while at UConn won 73 games. Averaging 18 wins per year with a schedule that didn’t include the number of games played today, Tony was awesome. Other great players on Dee’s teams who were drafted in the NBA were Jim Abromaitis, John Thomas, Bob Staak and Jimmy Foster.

While Dee was head coach it was a time of great student unrest, tough times, bomb scares, strikes, boycotts, as it was also the Vietnam years, and the first time the University of CT had enrolled so many African American students. He’s proud of those kids because they were pioneers. Coach Rowe brought in African Americans John Thomas from Louisiana (who earned a degree and works for St. Paul Insurance Company which was formerly Travelers), along with Tony Hanson from Waterbury (who has two degrees), Earl Wilson (another player with two degrees,) Al Westin (who has a good job), and Jimmy Foster (who’s also very successful in business).

Coach Rowe’s style of coaching was different from Coach Calhoun’s. “The game has changed dramatically. We didn’t have the three-point or the dunk. In my day people ran off from misses, and it was rare that you ran off a made hoop. Jim’s team will run on a make.” Coach Rowe’s teams played more zone, and didn’t press as much.

Coach Rowe’s thoughts on Coach Calhoun: “I have the greatest respect in the world for him, and for what he’s done, incredible respect for what he’s done. I love his style.” Coach Rowe was asked by a friend what Coach Calhoun was like, and Coach Rowe responded, “I’m not a horse better but if the jockey’s name was Calhoun, I’d bet on the horse, and if the horse was named Calhoun, I’d bet on the horse.” For the new season Coach Rowe doesn’t know how well the team will do but as long as the fire is burning as it is now within Coach Calhoun, the team will do well.

Dee has been all over the world with basketball. He’s been overseas 15 times but loves Connecticut, his hometown of Worcester, MA and he loves the Cape where he tries to spend time. Dee has a family of 32. He met his wife, Ginny, in college, and this coming January they will celebrate their 51st wedding anniversary. They have seven children, Donna, Cindy, Karen, Lisa, Don, Julie and Jennifer. Don was the captain of his high school basketball team, and played in the New England Championship in Prep School. One daughter was a great swimmer, most valuable player of her college team. Another daughter played on a state championship field hockey team, and another daughter was captain of the women’s basketball team in high school. Dee also has 11 grandsons and 5 granddaughters.

Dee had cancer this past winter and is a cancer survivor. When his former players found out that Dee had been diagnosed with cancer, they all got together to take him to lunch, and those players that couldn’t make the luncheon called him to wish him well. “They are like family. Those kinds of things give you the courage to do what you’ve got to do.” Dee is feeling awesome now, “I like to tell people to appreciate the gift of life because it is a gift, and if I can give that message, and be around kids, and games, coaches, and people in education, then I think that maybe I’m making some kind of contribution.”

Dee enjoys mentoring young people. He has gone back to Middlebury College in Vermont each winter for the past four years to teach a course called “Issues in Sports,” where he helps to educate kids on subjects like the role of athletics in education, sports in the media, and ethics in sportsmanship.

Dee loves helping to build kids lives. “You can make someone’s life better, and the forum I do it is basketball. I would like to think that if I have a legacy it would be to help people not see colors anymore.”