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October 28, 2013BOULDER, Colo. - To some, the town of Colby in western Kansas is little more than the first real stop off of Interstate 70 after leaving Colorado's eastern border. To others, it's a place where silos replace skyscrapers and college basketball coaches grow up working on farms.
At least, that is the background of current Colorado men's basketball assistant coach Mike Rohn, a Colby native who then made his way to McPherson College for two years of college basketball, by way of Dodge City Community College.
Rohn knew he wasn't a Division I athlete, but that's not what mattered, at least to him. He loved the game, was passionate about it and just wanted it in his life.
"I grew up in the middle of nowhere and had a passion, followed it and am still living that dream today," he said. "I was going to do whatever I had to do to get where I wanted to go."
His first stop was junior high basketball, then NAIA coaching and a stop back in Dodge City, leading the Conquistadors of DCCC. That lasted seven years, which Rohn joked about equaling 35 years of coaching anywhere else.
"It was a good opportunity there and I was really young," he said. "I learned more in my first year as a head coach than I've learned in 24 years of coaching, period."
It was there that he met current Colorado head coach, Tad Boyle.
"He was recruiting some of my players when he and coach [Mark] Turgeon were at Jacksonville State," Rohn said. "They had come in and done a good job recruiting a couple of guys and that's where it all started."
When Boyle and Turgeon made their way to Wichita State, Rohn was invited to join their staff. There, he joined current Colorado associate head coach Jean Prioleau. Rohn still remembers driving to the airport to pick up "Coach Pri" as the two began their relationship.
"I was just fortunate enough to get the chance to join the staff," Rohn said, thankfully. "The three of us were there five years together. Then Pri left (for Marquette) and Boyle got the job (at Northern Colorado)."
As far as life changing moments, career wise, that opportunity was likely the biggest one for a younger Coach Rohn and has propelled him to where he is today.
"I could still be a junior college head coach today, and not that I'd be disappointed with that because coaching is coaching. For me it was a big defining opportunity in my career, being given the opportunity to learn and be at this level and coach against the level of coaches you see," he said. "All the success, that's what you work for. The Sweet 16 at Wichita is something you never forget."
Rohn would leave the Shockers in 2007 for Texas A&M, where he served as Director of Basketball Operations for three years under Turgeon before being invited by Boyle to come to Boulder. The trust developed from years working together is key to the success that both Rohn and Boyle have had together, and it is the drive and passion that has served Rohn so well individually.
"When you're in coaching, especially as an assistant coach, you ultimately want to be working with and for a guy who you believe in with everything," he said. "Our philosophies are very similar. It makes coming to work everyday so much easier.
"We know everybody's strengths and everybody's weaknesses. It makes the tough days a little easier sometimes when you know that guy over there is someone you really value and respect as a coach, but also someone you know has your back and someone that ultimately is a real close friend."
Which leads us to his time in Boulder, where Rohn and his two longtime coaching partners have strung together the most successful four year stretch in the history of the program, igniting a fire in a program that had long been seen as too far behind the game's curve to succeed.
During that stretch, Rohn said that he has continued to grow as a coach, specifically on offense. He said that, early in his career, there was no questioning him being a defensive minded coach. As time has gone on, though, he's developed more and more offensive savvy. He credits that to the opportunity to do some real coaching, in practice, with these Buffs.
"Coach Boyle allows us to do a lot of coaching. We're all in a position where we're pretty well rounded," he said. "In the last four years, as the game continues to evolve and change in college basketball I think offensively, we've grown and I've definitely realized that, we're a defense and rebounding team but we've got to be efficient on offense. That's where you grow as a program. That's what we're trying to do, grow every aspect of our program."
He also notes his evolution as a recruiter as being something he has refined during his time at Colorado.
"I'm one of those guys that likes guys that have good athleticism, that can play their position athletically pretty well," he explained. "Ultimately, it's the skill set, your ability to dribble, pass and shoot. If I can find the guy that has the athleticism to go with it, then for us, and the way we like to play here and the things I like, we can play fast and we can play skilled.
"Also, finding out if the guy loves to play in the way he plays each game whether it's 7 a.m. or a late night game. I like guys who love the game because you know that those guys will continue to get better."
The program doesn't strictly divide up territory for each coach to recruit, causing them to develop connections all across the west, especially California and Texas. That means, Rohn could be heading up the recruitment of one prospect in Oakland, another in San Diego, plus one in Phoenix, while also evaluating a kid in Denver before flying to Houston to watch someone else.
The approach strengthens the coaches, and it has proven to be effective as CU continues to haul in recruiting classes of a quality rarely seen around these parts. Even those with a slightly less heralded reputation coming out of high school, like Andre Roberson and Spencer Dinwiddie, have been developed by these coaches and turned into either NBA players or NBA prospects.
He also noted that he believes the staff can recruit national at the University of Colorado, should they find a player with a connection to the program or, simply, one they really want.
As for Rohn's future, he loves Colorado and the university that employs him. His family, a wife and two teenage daughters, live near-by in Erie. He coaches at a winning program, one many believe to be on the cusp of something truly special.
But, as he said himself, there is a higher goal that he hopes to achieve, like being a head coach once again.
"That's what you ultimately want to do," he continued. "In today's realm of college basketball, that's not an easy thing to necessarily do. If an opportunity presents itself, then yeah, it's going to be great.
"We all feel pretty fortunate to be here because they do a great job of supporting our program and I guess my philosophy is, if you're good enough it's going to happen."
He notes his experience at a multitude of levels as being one his best qualities, one that should persuade an athletic director looking his way to offer him the position.
"I've had the chance to learn from some pretty good head coaches," he said. "We've built some pretty good things and I think that's unique. That's something I can hang my hat on.
"I wasn't a Division I athlete but I was passionate and I played. When you played the game and you're passionate, it's what you're all about, I think that's something that defines who you are and the passion you have for your profession."
The decision making process, when an opportunity does arise, also includes his family, who has lived in three different cities since his youngest daughter was born.
"When you've got young kids its more about them than it is about you," he explained humbly. "I have a passion and things I want to do but every decision I'll ever make will be based on what's best for them too."
Perhaps that's the Colby, Kansas in him, the values that he was brought up with as a young man, a young coach and ultimately, a father and husband. It is part of the perspective that has made him one of the west's most valuable assistant coaches and also, made him a part of so much success and so many wins.
Well, at least on the court.
"My job really starts when I get home," he joked. "I never win any battles when I get there."
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