Feb. 7, 2012
Former Arizona swimmer, NCAA Champion and NCAA Woman of the Year finalist Annie Chandler will be writing a series of feature stories for ArizonaWildcats.com.
The McKale Center is crawling with former Arizona Wildcat student-athletes that cannot seem to escape its historic walls. Is there something nostalgic about working around your old stomping grounds? Is it a debt to an organization they feel shaped their person?
As a former UA student-athlete, I set out to investigate why so many Wildcats stick around.
Meet Rocky LaRose. It's a name that has been in the air and in print since her years as the Wildcats' star softball player. Some may remember her as the 1978 UA Homecoming Queen. The deputy athletic director warmly invited me into her office and leaned in with interest as she answered my questions.
"I tend to be a principal." LaRose said. "Athletes can't really throw much by me since I have experienced life as an athlete."
LaRose made it to the highest level as a starting infielder and cleanup hitter for the Wildcats in the late `70s. But her days as a female athlete were different. The women had their own athletic director, Mary Roby, and the men's and women's departments did not merge until 1983.
"I was one of the first women to receive a full-ride scholarship, and I thought I had won the lottery. The concept just wasn't even in front of us," LaRose said.
LaRose forged the way for future generations of women in athletics, becoming the first woman in the early 1990s to oversee operations of Division I men's football and basketball programs and later to become the first female UA athletic director when she served as interim AD from December 2009 to May 2010.
Rocky has risen to the top, on one field and in another.
"Athletes make better employees through and through," LaRose said. "Of course, it has to be the right athlete."
Victor Yates might fit the description of "the right athlete." Yates played football for the Wildcats from 2006 through 2010, but you can count on one hand the number of games he participated in. Nominated for the Rudy Award in 2010, Yates made his name through his character, work ethic and devotion to his team. He now uses his contagious pep to run the Student Wildcat Club, which encourages the student body to plug in to Arizona Athletics.
"There's a skill you learn in football-- to never quit. That's why I stay after hours so much. On the football field we called it `getting extra in,'" Yates said.
Yates has converted this endurance into social stamina in the workforce. His favorite part of his office job is talking to donors.
"It's a blessing to be able to talk to donors and tell them that their money helped me come to the UA and be a first-generation graduate," Yates said.
Yates has seen his share of firsts. Starting quarterback Yates led his Palo Verde High School football team to their first state championship in 32 years. He was the first graduating athlete to go play at a Division I college from Palo Verde H.S. and he became the first college graduate from his family in May 2011.
Yates' most memorable moment as an employed Wildcat occurred recently at a baseball game. He was speaking with a man who had been following him since his high school days.
"It's really good to see that you are doing something after college, and sticking around with Arizona Athletics," the man said.
This was a heartwarming pat on the back for Yates.
"It felt really good as an employee, not only to know that people are following you, but seeing that they have a passion for Arizona," Yates said.
Maybe it's that passion that makes athletes want to remain with or return to Arizona Athletics.
"In this business it's hard for me to understand how you can go to a different school and have the same loyalty and the same passion," LaRose said. "I always wanted to stay at UA. Not many people have long athletic careers in one spot, so I feel very honored that I've been able to do that."
Michele Mitchell, two-time Olympic silver medalist and the most decorated diver in Wildcat history, still feels she's among teammates at work. Her college years overlapped with LaRose's tenure as a player and swim coach Rick DeMont's years as a swimmer. Mitchell is working as the swimming and diving program's director of operations now, but was the head diving coach for 15 years prior.
"It's weird how many people you can trace back to the `70s and `80s," Mitchell said.
DeMont graduated from the UA with a degree in fine art in 1980. He spent the following decade in an art community in Oracle, Ariz., living out his artistic dream as a seven-month per year resident. DeMont was invited back to the UA to coach swimming part-time in 1987. It was then that his trained eye learned to look at his swimmers as masterpieces in progress. He was hooked on a new artistic endeavor.
"It never occurred to me to coach somewhere else," DeMont said.
When DeMont stepped onto the UA campus in 1977, he was a world-record-holding swimmer who had already won Olympic Gold at the Munich Games. What DeMont learned from the sport of swimming, "sounds like the regular athletic jargon," according to him.
"Consistency, patience, work ethic, and lofty expectations," DeMont said.
As one of DeMont's athletes, I have seen him tap into this skill set daily. But the way he conveys his lofty expectations for his swimmers is not daunting, but inspiring.
"Trying to get through to young people that they can take charge of their lives, and that they can get what they want out of life- that's probably the most rewarding thing for me," DeMont said. "Watching people become empowered."
Instilling confidence in people seems to be a knack of these former Wildcat athletes.
"It's really fun to take someone who is hungry and has talent, but hasn't bloomed in the sport yet, and build them," Mitchell said. "That's what I will miss from coaching the most-- having that hands-on, in-your-face mentoring opportunity."
LaRose has overseen every UA national championship, except that won by the baseball team in 1976. One of her biggest joys has been witnessing the growing success of Arizona's athletic program, but what she savors in her 33rd year at UA is encouraging her coworkers.
"What I'm enjoying now is mentoring some of the other women on staff." LaRose said. "When I first began I was the one and only, so it's neat to see so many young women coming up in the profession."
LaRose compares her involvement with the 19 sports that comprise Arizona Athletics to having multiple children. She loves them all equally and finds it impossible to say one national championship memory is fonder than another.
Mitchell takes personal pride in remaining in touch with 90 percent of her former athletes. And she does not Facebook.
"I get calls, emails, baby announcements...it's sort of like you're extended family," Mitchell said.
Yates is a fresh product of Arizona Athletics - still a baby as far as LaRose, Mitchell and DeMont are concerned. But the confidence and fervor he adopted as a Wildcat athlete now shines through in his work for the Wildcat Club.
So maybe there's nothing magnetic to former Wildcats about the McKale Center. The draw is the selfless gusto implanted in the people that make up Arizona's athletic department.
"The chances of me working at another college are slim to none. This is where it's at for me. I love it here. All I know how to say is `Giddy up, Wildcats!" DeMont said. "I don't know what kind of words would come out if I were someplace else."
A complete list of former Wildcat student-athletes employed by Arizona Athletics:
Candace Abrams, Volunteer Assistant Coach/Softball, softball
Frankie Acosta, Development/Wildcat Club, baseball
Randi Acosta, Assistant Coach/Women's Gymnastics, gymnastics
Chrissy Alexander, Account Executive/IMG, softball
Callista Balko, Development/Wildcat Club, softball
Andy Barnes, Assistant Coach/Men's Golf, golf
Erika Barnes, Development/Wildcat Club, softball
Tanner Bell, C.A.T.S. Academics, football
Dawn Boxley, Director of Operations/Men's and Women's Track and Field, track and field
Darrell Brooks, Development/Wildcat Club, football
Andres Carrasco, Volunteer Assistant Coach/Men's Tennis, tennis
Sue Darling, Assistant Coach/Women's Basketball, basketball
Rick DeMont, Assistant Coach/Men's and Women's Swimming, swimming
James Francis, Senior Assoc. Director of Athletics/External Operations, football
Geoff Hanson, Assistant Coach/Men's and Women's Swimming, swimming
Alicia Hollowell, Director of Operations/Softball, softball
Donald Horton, Strength and Conditioning, football
Laura Ianello, Head Coach/Women's Golf, golf
Stacy Iveson, Assistant Coach/Softball, softball Kathleen "Rocky" LaRose, Deputy Director of Athletics, softball
Tom Lloyd, Assistant Coach/Men's Tennis, tennis
Vicky Maes, Head Coach/Women's Tennis, tennis
Michele Mitchell, Director of Operations/Swimming and Diving, diving
Omar Ojeda, Head Coach/Diving, diving
Brett Scyphers, Volunteer Assistant Coach/Baseball, baseball
Justin Silverstein, Assistant Coach/Women's Golf, golf
Victor Yates, Development/Wildcat Club, football