Dee Rowe used to come to practice every day. He would sit 15 or 16 rows up at Gampel Pavilion and watch the program he once led handle its business. Then once it was over, head coach Dan Hurley would venture up the concrete steps, past all of the blue seats and sit down with Rowe. Hurley said he’d listen to Rowe rattled off stories about the days of Jim Calhoun’s and Geno Auriemma’s time at UConn.
The UConn athletic department announced that Rowe died Sunday morning, at the age of 91. Rowe was the head coach of UConn men’s basketball from 1969-1977.
“UConn nation is grieving the loss of an icon,” athletic director David Benedict said on a Zoom with reporters and Rowe’s family. “As a coach, mentor, and, most importantly, a friend to so many Dee has touched so many of us in so many ways.”
UConn’s foremost ambassador
Rowe was instrumental in the construction of the UConn basketball brand that we know today.
“[Rowe] was the epitome of an ambassador for the program,” Benedict said.
It was his relationship with founder Dan Gavitt that helped earn UConn a place in the original Big East conference in 1979. He was also a part of the efforts to raise money for the creation of Harry A. Gampel Pavilion — UConn’s basketball home.
He is a member of UConn’s Huskies of Honor and was awarded the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award.
Rowe was also part of the search committee that helped hire Auriemma and Calhoun in the mid-1980s.
Auriemma said that he had lunch with Rowe one day in 1985 while going through the hiring process. Even though he spent most of the lunch trying to convince Rowe to put in a good word with the rest of the committee, it was Rowe who helped convince him that he could do something special at UConn.
“I thought, man, it didn’t look so special when I walked around campus, but he convinced you it was,” Auriemma said.
Since then, Auriemma has guided the women’s basketball team to 11 national championships.
The two-three zone
In the time since his hiring, Auriemma said that Rowe never stopped trying to get him to play the two-three zone on defense.
“He never stopped trying to get me to do two things: the two-three zone… and you gotta run stack offense,” Auriemma said.
Hurley said that Rowe also tried to sell him on playing more zone defense several times.
Rowe nearly made Auriemma want to play in the gym in Hawley Armory, a small basketball court sandwiched between Oak Hall and the library. Because it was so small, a coach could run a one-three-one zone and force the opponent to shoot from the corners. Well, there’s almost no space in those corners, according to Auriemma, and if you look up there’s a track hanging in the way of any potential shot.
‘Dee was really cool’
Rowe was a natural storyteller, often spending time speaking at funerals and at dinners for his friends, according to Auriemma. He was often found wearing a clean tan suit. He was also a hell of a time on the golf course, the women’s basketball coach said.
“The great thing about Dee, he didn’t have to say a lot,” Auriemma said. “I learned from Dee just by watching how he carried himself. Just the way he was, he reminded you of an old-time movie star. He always had the pocket square and always dressed impeccably, and he carried himself around like an old movie star from the 30s and 40s.”
It wasn’t all his clothes, though — considering he sometimes wore pants multiple sizes too big for him, Auriemma said — it was his aura.
“You’re not cool because you have the right jewelry or the right clothes and drive the right car,” Auriemma said. “Do you know what cool is? Cool is a state of being. It’s something that surrounds you. Dee was really cool.”
The women’s basketball program had a birthday celebration for Rowe one day and Auriemma said he was dancing and skipping around the room with the “joy of a kindergarten kid at a birthday party.”
“He could shake hands with the President of the United States and feel right at home,” Auriemma said.