By KYLE KERSEY
In 1974, Jim Rosborough ate breakfast with Lute Olson in Elgin, Illinois, an hour northwest of Chicago. A week later, he was hired as a Graduate Assistant to Olson’s original staff at the University of Iowa, a job that would spark a college coaching career that’s lasted 41 years.
“I was really a full time assistant,” Rosborough says. “You could do everything – recruit, coach, everything – but it was titled Graduate Assistant. 1,000 dollars for every year. I had some pension money left from teaching in Chicago. First two years I didn’t make much, but after that I had a good salary.”
Rosborough currently serves as an assistant coach on the Pima Women’s Basketball team, a role he has held since 2015. However, ask around town and many Tucsonans know him simply as “Roz,” one of a few assistant coaches roaming the floor when the Olson’s Arizona Wildcats won their first – and only – National Championship in 1997.
As we talk at the West Campus Gymnasium after a pre-season practice, his players casually walk by and greet the approachable 74 year old coach. At one point, freshman guard Tyra Do chimes in: “Roz make sure you say I’m your favorite player,” to which he laughs and nods.
During practice, it’s a different story. Rosborough actively coaches during team drills and scrimmages, yelling out instruction and correcting his players’ mistakes. His coaching style is decidedly hands on.
“I got this from Lute; you don’t take a possession off,” Rosborough says. “So I’m very verbal. The kids know the yelling and screaming; it’s coaching. So my stance is: I’m not going to take a possession off. We’ve got to teach, we’ve got to command, we’ve got to make them do it our way. It’s not their choice, it’s how we want it done, and that takes being on them all the time…Catching the ball with one hand, throwing one handed passes drives me crazy. All these things we just have to stay on top of them. I’ll tell you right now we’ve made vast improvement with this bunch. We’re not where we’re gonna be.”
Raised around Chicago, Rosborough attended Moline High School, a school well known for its basketball prestige. Growing up, he would attend their games and, eventually, play on the team himself, earning All-State honors as a forward.
“My old high school in Moline was a powerhouse,” he says. “We played in a 6,000 seat gymnasium. So a lot of those guys were my idols. I went to all the games. They were kind of my idols when I was a kid… I always liked the Celtics, too. I loved Bill Russell and all those old guys. I couldn’t stand it when Wilt [Chamberlin] beat him.”
Rosborough would later play basketball at the University of Iowa, though he rarely saw playing time. He compared his experience at Iowa to former Wildcats point guard and current Georgia Tech men’s basketball head coach Josh Pastner.
““Do you know what Josh Pastner did for the Arizona team? Sat his butt on the bench. That’s where I was at Iowa. I was a deep reserve, but I was all the team for all 4 years.”
The next several years, Rosborough ended up teaching in at Corkery elementary school in Chicago, as well as coaching their eighth grade basketball team.
“I loved that. I taught classes during the day. We had a really good team. I’m thinking in four years there we won a hundred-some games travelling all over the Chicago area.”
His knowledge of the Chicago basketball scene, as well as a recommendation from his former coach at Iowa, was enough to get his foot in the door for his first college coaching position at Iowa. He joined a then 40 year-old Lute Olson’s debut coaching staff at Iowa; a staff that would eventually take the program to a regular season Big Ten Conference Championship in the 1978-79 season and a Final Four appearance a year later.
“I got in my car and went to see every kid play,” he says. “One of the good things we did at Iowa – I think we started this our second or third year – we started the Advanced Invitational Camp. So I’d comb through the newspapers and see this kid from a high school who’d done well, send him an invite to come to the camp, and we ended up – in the second year we did this – with 28 kids who went to Division I schools. Randy Brewer, a big 7 foot kid who went to Minnesota, Kenny Arnold came with us to Iowa, Steve Krafcisin came back to Iowa, Isiah Thomas we didn’t get.”
Rosborough said that Thomas, who would play college ball for Indiana and later to win two NBA Championships with the Detroit Pistons, was recruited by Iowa during his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons. In total, he traveled to see him play 26 times.
When Lute Olson left Des Moines for Tucson in March of 1983, Rosborough initially stayed behind as an assistant to Athletic Director Bump Elliott, citing the birth of his first-born son as motivation. In 1986, he joined the Tulsa coaching staff under first-year head coach JD Barnett.
“Really, really, really a good coach,” Rosborough says. “Here’s Lute: calm, collected, no cussing. JD Barnett: frantic, crazy, would cuss all the time. But a great coach. We had a really good year; turned the whole thing around and got into the NCAA Tournament. I loved the year.”
While at Tulsa, Rosborough received the praises of Barnett when his defensive scheming helped to win the program a Missouri Valley Conference Championship.
“When we did win at Tulsa – actually I’m kind of proud of this – we won the Missouri Valley Conference Title. We beat Bradley in Tulsa,” he says. “I think they had three or four kids who ended up playing in the NBA. Standing room only crowd. We beat them and JD in the paper the next day said ‘we credit Roz’s 1-3-1 zone. We got ready for it all week and we beat them with it.’ Otherwise we were a man team at Tulsa.”
His work did not go unnoticed, as the next year he became the head coach of the Northern Illinois Huskies men’s basketball team. However, his tenure was overshadowed by an unstable athletic department. In his three seasons with the Huskies, he answered to three different Athletic Directors, eventually being let go by the program in 1989.
“I knew right away when they hired the third AD that it wasn’t a good fit, so that was kind of a struggle year. To be honest with you, when I was let go, I didn’t mind it. I mean I minded it, but I didn’t mind it at all. The guy was a jerk. Just a bad situation.”
Two years later though, his recruiting class would earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in school history. It would be the only head coaching gig of his career, a conscious decision on Rosborough’s part.
“We had kids,” he says. “ I’m glad it happened this way and I think my wife is now too, but her stance was ‘well maybe you should have applied and gone somewhere with a little more money.’ I didn’t pursue it. I wanted to get my kids through high school and college here. My older son was my manager for five years at Arizona so he was in the program. It gave us some stability, not moving all over. You watch football; guys two years, three years, moving all over. I didn’t want any part of that. And we liked it. And we were winning.”
Rosborough reunited with Olson at an Arizona program that had been to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past five years, buoyed by big time players like Sean Rooks, Jud Buechler, Matt Othick and Chris Mills. He was viewed by many as Olson’s right hand man, a coach who Olson himself once described as “a premier sideline assistant, as good as any in the business.”
“We’d run four weeks of camp in the summer with 300 to 350 kids a week,” he says. “It was fun but brutal. But I did still recruit; Michael Wright from our 2001 team, a kid named Will Bynum. I went more to the Midwest while the other people went to California. A little bit up in Seattle.”
Following the 1997 National Championship season, during which the Wildcats defeated three number one seeds in the tournament, he was promoted to associate head coach. He would later fill in for Olson during the 2000 season while his wife of 47 years, Bobbi Olson, was battling ovarian cancer; a stint during which he coached Arizona to a 3-1 record.
“We probably should have won 18, 19 games just on talent. Then there were the Stanford’s, the UCLA’s that were big time games and they were gonna be a toss-up. Then you get into the tournament and it’s a toss-up…We were very selective in our recruiting. We made sure we made sure we got the pieces that fit what we were trying to do. We got good kids. We got kids that fit in and we recruited by position.”
“Not perfect, one had a beer,” he says jokingly. “But we had good kids that worked hard. We coached them and they wanted to win so it was a good situation.”
He left the Wildcats in 2007 after a disagreement with Olson concerning his future role with the team.
“I’d been with him to four final fours. He’d been to five. We’d done everything to make his job easier. He asked me to move off the floor and move into an administrative thing in the office to be his right hand man and I wasn’t going to have anything to do with that. So I left.”
Rosborough spent the next several years bouncing between coaching positions. In 2010, he joined Pima Community College, serving as an assistant to Karl Pieroway, then head coach of the men’s basketball team. A year later, he was an assistant coach for women’s tennis back at the University under Vicky Maes, a position he held for four years despite not even playing tennis in High School. During his four year tenure, the team earned bids to three NCAA Tournaments.
“We played an exhibition match in 1994. Vicky Maes was my partner and Miles Simon (a standout Arizona guard who won Most Outstanding player in the 1997 NCAA Tournament) played with one of the other girls. Vicky and I kicked him, so she’d been a friend for a long time.”
In 2015, Rosborough was asked by current Pima Aztecs women’s basketball head coach Todd Holthaus to come by and install his 1-3-1 zone defense.
“The first half-year I was here I did quite a bit of shooting work with the girls. I didn’t go out of town but I was here for practice…I like Todd. I was retired, essentially, from big jobs. But I love this.”
He’s been with the team ever since. His passion for the game of basketball, as well as for the players he coaches, is evident watching him coach from the baseline. It’s a passion he’s had his whole life.
“It started in my driveway when I was about three. And it’s just been something that’s in me. I love basketball. I love the teaching. I love winning…I’ve been here four full seasons and we’ve been to Nationals twice. We’ve finished third and we’ve finished fifth,” he says, pointing to the banners that hang at the end of the gymnasium. “The goal is every single season to make the playoffs here and then get to nationals.”
Rosborough says he hopes to coach for a few more years, though certainly not into his 80s. As for how he’s sustained this passion for the game, he invokes the eloquent words of Bobby Knight.
“Bobby Knight put it simple. I saw him interview with that golf guy Feherty. He asked ‘what is the attraction?’ And excuse the language – this is Bobby Knight – but he said ‘that’s the f—ing dumbest question. I f—ing love to win!’ I mean, that’s the deal. You like to win. You like to see the kids learn. I like the associations. I like being around the younger people. It keeps me young. But the bottom line is, you like to win.”