Karl Lindholm: Professor Basketball and his friends
Donald “Dee” Rowe, Middlebury College, class of 1952, died at age 91 on January 10. Dee was a major figure in basketball circles in New England and nationally: his obituary in the Boston Globe called him “the ebullient lodestar to a constellation of New England basketball coaches and players.” Dee spent five decades in the athletic department at the University of Connecticut, first as a successful coach at the highest D-I level and later as a Special Adviser for Athletics. In 2017 he received the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Dee was enormously proud of his Middlebury connection, often declaring that Middlebury “did it right” in sports. For 17 Winter Terms, Dee organized and helped teach (with men’s ice hockey coach Bill Beaney) a course on coaching. In January 2016, sports columnist Karl Lindholm wrote this piece on the occasion of Dee’s final Winter Term course at the college.
On Feb. 1, he will be back where he belongs … behind the slim lectern in the converted classroom in Kenyon Lounge at the hockey arena at Middlebury College.
He will be impeccably attired as always. He will greet the students warmly, tell them how much he loves Middlebury, his alma mater (class of ’52), and how deeply he believes that sports, when done right, is a source of growth and joy in our lives. He will speak earnestly, in both formal diction and sports colloquialisms, with his distinctive Yankee accent (after all, he’s from “Wusstah, Mass.”).
Donald “Dee” Rowe is a Winter Term institution at Middlebury College.
This is the 17th January Term Dee has led a coaching and leadership course. “Coaching and Issues in Sports” is back after a three-year hiatus. Dee is only able to get free for the last week of Winter Term classes this year. It’s not that he is conceding to age (he celebrated his 87th birthday yesterday, Jan. 20), he just has other obligations.
“I wish I could come longer,” he said, “but I’m on the payroll here and there are lots of men’s and women’s (basketball) games.” Dee is the Special Advisor to Athletics at the University of Connecticut, and has an office in Gampel Pavilion, the basketball arena at UConn.
He has a partner in this academic enterprise at Middlebury, former Panther men’s hockey coach Bill Beaney, who volunteered years ago to take on some of the course’s organizational demands and the evaluation of students’ work. Bill’s collaboration ensured the course’s viability and vitality in the long term.
Dee Rowe played basketball at Middlebury on powerful teams in the 1950s under Coach Tony Lupien, who became his mentor and friend. A very successful coach in his own right, Dee coached Worcester Academy to prep powerhouse status before becoming the men’s basketball coach at the University of Connecticut, where he has been for the last 46 years.
For his eight years as basketball coach at UConn, 1969-77, his teams won nearly 60 percent of their games; his 1975-76 team played deep into the NCAA tournament (Sweet Sixteen). Those years, the ’70s, were a time of tumult, protest, and disorder. Dee developed a profound commitment to social justice and racial equality.
He was the first coach in New England to have an African-American starting five, and he has said that he hopes his legacy might be that “he helped people not to see color anymore.”
Dee has been married to Ginny for 62 years. They met at Middlebury: “She walked by my dorm window my senior year, and I said ‘I’m going to marry that girl.’” They have seven children, two of whom graduated from Middlebury.
Dee has taught this course over the past two decades with a little help from his friends. Each year, he has asked associates from his lifetime in sports to come to Vermont in the middle of winter, with no honoraria or remuneration, to impart their wisdom to 30 fortunate juniors and seniors, many who are varsity athletes and a number who aspire to be coaches.
And they come, this eclectic mix of luminaries, young and old, so appreciative and fond are they of Dee. Over the years, I have often had the privilege of visiting the class and been stimulated by the presentations of Dee’s invitees. In particular:
• Basketball Hall of Famer, the late Dave Gavitt, Dee’s longtime friend from the coaching ranks (Dartmouth, Providence), president of the Celtics, commissioner of the Big East Conference, Olympic coach, and any number of other positions at the top of the world of basketball in America. He spoke of his journey to these positions of great influence.
• J.P. Ricciardi, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays at the time he visited Middlebury (he’s now with the Mets) and a camper at Dee’s summer basketball camp at Worcester Academy as a kid. His account of duties in Major League Baseball was spellbinding to a baseball fan like me.
• Rebecca Lobo, star basketball player at UConn and professionally, came to Middlebury (with her husband, writer Steve Rushin), and discussed her career and issues of gender in American sports.
• Senior writer at Sports Illustrated Alex Wolff is an annual visitor and has been instrumental in engaging SI colleagues to be guests as well: senior writers Tim Leyden and Jack McCallom (whose son teaches in Midd’s Sociology Department), and former SI writer, now at ESPN, Steve Wulf (whose daughter plays ice hockey at Middlebury).
Senior Editor Trisha Lucey Blackmar (Midd class of ’95, a basketball player) discussed sports writing and distributed an SI style sheet of rhetorical “do’s and don’ts” that I have happily shared with my classes.
And so many more: Richard Lapchick, author and sports scholar, and tireless activist for racial equality in sports; Bill Burke, Midd ’73, headmaster of St. Sebastian’s School, an eloquent voice on sports and values; Dave Wolk ’75, president of Castleton University, who added football and ice hockey to his program and increased school spirit enormously; all-star goalie for the New York Rangers Mike Richter, who in retirement is an environmental activist, founding Athletes for a Healthy Planet.
What a powerful opportunity this class has been for Middlebury students to learn how sports work in the larger world — and to discuss the deeper meanings of sports from these inspirational figures.
As senior Allison Sciarretta, a lacrosse player, observed, “As a senior about to graduate and enter the work force, I have been able to reflect on how athletics has helped me get to where I am today and how they will continue to help me later.”
Dee can’t wait to get back to Middlebury in a week or so to resume his teaching role. “I love being given the opportunity to spark an interest in Middlebury students for a career in athletics,” he told me.