Basketball coaches are usually considered unapproachable by the average student. They tend to remain within their realm of expertise in the gym or in the video room. But Jack Rohan was different. Whether it was talking to a group of kids in Carman, or answering the questions of a confused and nervous first-year, Rohan was always ready to help.
Jack Rohan, the most successful basketball coach in Columbia history, died on Aug. 9 in a nursing home in South Yarmouth, Mass. due to a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome. The disease struck the 1953 Columbia graduate in the summer of 1961. He left behind his wife Barbara, two children, three grandchildren, and a veritable legacy with his passing.
His career was highlighted by the 1967-1968 team that won the Ivy League Championship in an upset over the Princeton Tigers. The same Columbia team managed to upset West Virginia, Louisville, and St. John s to win the Holiday Festival, one of the biggest tournaments of the era. Rohan s Lions, led by superstar Jim McMillian, were among the nation s elite. If you ask one of the small number of men who played on those teams, he would probably recall those moments firsthand, but Rohan s impact stretched beyond the confines of the basketball court. He was also well known for his friendly interactions with the student body.
Breaking Division I tradition, he would hold open tryouts despite a full roster composed of returning lettermen and incoming recruits. Rohan left coaching basketball after the 1973-1974 season to take care of his two children, Christopher and Jennifer, while his wife Barbara was ill. Nevertheless, he continued to support the Columbia community by serving as the University s physical education director. When the Columbia administration asked him to choose between the positions of coach and physical education director, he reportedly chose the latter because it allowed him to personally reach more students.
Chair of the department was a perfect title for him, because in addition to directing the phys. ed. program he was a father figure to a lot of the staff members, including myself, Ken Torrey, Columbia s current chairman of physical education, said.
Unable to stay away from the thrill of the game, Rohan returned to coaching in Morningside Heights in 1990. Brought back in an attempt to revive the slipping basketball program, Rohan achieved some success, as he led a talented squad to a second place finish in 1993. Led by co-Ivy League Player of the Year Buck Jenkins and Tom Casey, the Lions finished second only to the famous Jerome Allen, Matt Maloney-led Quakers. After the season, Rohan became the first member of the physical education department to win Columbia s prestigious Great Teacher award, for his contributions to both the athletic program and the University. The citation for Rohan s honor stated in part: A model of wit and erudition, a noted raconteur, you are renowned as much for your scintillating lectures as for courtside stratagems. You know the secrets of bringing out each man s aptitude and confidence. He then retired as head basketball coach, following the 1994-1995 season with a 198-247 career record, which included three consecutive 20-win seasons.
Rohan was feared and unanimously revered by opposing coaches and colleagues ranging from Princeton s legendary Pete Carril to Torrey, who noted him as a great teacher [and] role model who you learned about life from.
A Lion from beginning to end, Rohan was a two-sport athlete as an undergraduate. He played on Columbia s undefeated basketball team of the 1950-51 season while appearing as a third baseman, shortstop, and pitcher for the baseball team. During his youthful days, he was commonly known as Rip due to his stark resemblance to an Army gridiron star prompting campus-wide admiration.
Jack was the man, Torrey said.
In what would become a pattern, Rohan turned down a Triple-A offer from the New York Yankees, and chose to return to Columbia. Rohan continued to turn down every following offer that would take him away from Columbia s College Walk, including the opportunity to prep the Kenyan National Basketball team for the upcoming Olympics. After remaining at Columbia to earn a Master s degree from Teachers College (1957), he left Morningside Heights only briefly until 1961 to coach at New York University. His only other non-Columbia position was after his 1996 retirement, when he was a freelance sports journalist for The New York Times and a broadcaster for various radio and television sports.