LEXINGTON — Fifty-three-year-old Barry Rohrssen brings a reputation as a recruiting whiz to his role, not coincidentally, as a chief recruiter on UK coach John Calipari’s staff.
When asked about his approach to recruiting at an introductory press conference Tuesday — 12 days after he was hired — Rohrssen summed it up in a most practical fashion:
“One of the things you find out as a coach is that the plays work great when you have great players,” said Rohrssen, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, who made his name largely through two stints as an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh. “So you better find the good ones.”
Rohrssen also said the best recruiters are your players.
“Because they are the actual living proof of what’s going on, and how things are being done,” he said.
Though Rohrssen has been in coaching for 30-plus years, his career did not take off until he joined then-coach Ben Howland’s staff at Pittsburgh in 1999. Howland left for UCLA in 2003. Rohrssen declined Howland’s offer to join him in Westwood, deciding to stay on at Pitt when Jamie Dixon took over the Panthers’ program in 2003.
Rohrssen then took the head coaching job at Manhattan in 2006 and stayed four seasons, with moderate success. He coached a year in the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers organization before rejoining Dixon’s Pitt staff last year.
Despite a life spent largely in the northeast where he grew up, Rohrssen has had two brushes with Kentucky basketball that led him to UK.
First, as a student at Saint Francis College, Rohrssen was hired to work at Howard Garfinkel’s famous five-star basketball camp, a place that had the reputation as the best teaching camp in the hoops business for decades.
“Just by chance, the first week of my employment there, I went to check into my dorm as one of the coaches and counselors, and who turned out to be my roommate was a guy by the name of John Calipari,” Rohrssen said.
Asked when that was exactly, Rohrssen said: “Well, you’re a little young for this, but back then we had rotary phones. I’m not even sure we had push button phones yet. Now we would probably be on Facebook, Instagram ... whatever you call it now.”
What was Calipari like in those days?
“He knew he wanted to be a coach from the first day I met him,” Rohrssen said. “It’s what he spoke about, it’s what really consumed him, and one of the reasons why he’s been so good at what he does. He’s got a very clear definition of what he wants to do with his life, and he’s gone on to do that, and there’s no greater place than here.”
Rohrssen and Calipari have remained friends ever since.
Rorhssen said this isn’t the first time Calipari has approached him about coaching together.
“He has been very kind to me,” Rohrssen said of Calipari. “And I felt like I better take it this time. There may come a time when he doesn’t ask anymore. I’m sure there’s a long line of people that would want this job, and every year the line gets longer. So we’ve spoken about it in the past, and now that the opportunity presents itself, I have to tell you: This is a dream come true. I’ve had a blessed life.”
Listening to Rohrssen talk, it seems clear that he and Calipari share a similar passion and approach to basketball.
“I grew up loving basketball,” Rohrssen said. “Loving sports, and basketball, in particular. One thing about sports is that there really are no boundaries to it ... age, race, religion ... coming from the neighborhood I grew up in. New York is a melting pot. You just come across so many different people, and basketball has become such a global, international game. I just felt this is a great way to be able to stay involved in sports and, more importantly, give back.”
Rohrssen’s UK roots, however, extend even beyond Calipari.
Rohrssen noted another time during his own college days when he reached out to Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall about getting into coaching. Hall invited Rohrssen to work at the basketball camp Hall had at UK in those days.
Rohrssen said he has met with Hall over lunch in recent days.
At the close of Tuesday’s presser, Rohrssen was asked if he has ambition to be a head coach again.
“Let the process play out,” he said. “Right now, I’m just enjoying this. I’ve always felt good in my life, fortunately. As I said, the Lord has blessed me, and I have my Mom to thank so much.”