Coach Rohe Eulogy

Monday October 16, 2023 Roger Neiswender

Woodlawn Funeral Home, 400 Woodlawn Cemetery Road   Gotha, FL  11:00am   

I’m honored today to represent the over 200 University of Tennessee trackmen, some who are here today from far and wide whose young lives were forever changed by Coach Chuck Rohe. 

First, We would like to thank the Rohe Family especially Dana, Mason, Connie and Jeannie who shared Chuck with us and supported him over all these years. WE ARE GRATEFUL!

From the moment in 1949 that Chuck Rohe and some of his best buddies piled into their car and pressed south from suburban Park Ridge Chicago, IL in search of warm winters and a scholarship in college football, life was one big adventure. Chuck was armed with his excellent high school academic experience, boundless energy, and had a voracious quest for learning.  He could have been an engineer, a doctor, Indian chief, he saw no limits. 

The college search pressed through several mid-sized colleges until they finally arrived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and the University of Southern Mississippi.  They landed partial scholarships, played football, and worked odd jobs to make ends meet.  Along the way Chuck returned to Chicago and married his first wife, Jeannie. Chuck became enamored with sports and completed a BS and MS in Physical Science.   

Upon graduation, Chuck landed an assistantship at So. Miss, then football coach position at Hattiesburg High School in 1954.  He also had to choose a spring sport assignment.  He chose Track mainly on the basis, all you had to do was RUN and run they did!  Coach reasoned he could figure out the rest of those events, like hurdles, jumps. and throws, but mostly they involved running in some form or another.  His teams exceeded all expectations, winning two state championships and several state gold medal performances.  

In summer of 1957, a little Baptist college in Greenville, South Carolina—Furman—came calling and convinced Chuck that they had real possibilities for developing a track program, despite their size. Given Chuck’s boundless energy, high octane enthusiasm, and near sleepless schedule, success followed. 

His teams came to dominance in the Southern Conference in Track.  In his recruits from all over the East, and Chuck’s home Chicago area, also included some of the very early recruitment of athletes from Europe. 

Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee Dean of Biology, L. R. Hessler and long-time track enthusiast and SEC foundation approached the UT President DR. Andy Holt and convinced him that UT should aspire to greatness in a broad array of sports, not just a national football powerhouse.  They approached UT Athletic Director Bowden Wyatt and put together a shortlist of potential coaches. At Hessler’s insistence, he introduced them to the dynamo from Furman. 

September 1962 saw the beginning of Chuck’s tenure as UT’s Track Coach. He recruited far and wide, armed with several scholarships, most of which he broke into smaller pieces – tuition here, books there, meals, room, to others resulting in an unprecedented recruiting class while also including several Furman transfers, including Coppley Vickers, Rocky Soderberg, and Jim Webster.  Chuck recruited heavily from the Chicago area, relying on his old friends and coaching buddies.  His first year showing at the SEC championship in Birmingham, Chuck’s small hold over class did well in the varsity events, but his freshman class almost swept all events, often outperforming the SEC varsity winners. 

His second incoming class arrived in 1963, Coach welcomed us to an all-afternoon BBQ and lakeside get acquainted opportunity. We were struck with Coach’s enthusiasm and plans for the upcoming cross country and indoor-outdoor track seasons—we were going to overwhelm the SEC.  He told us it would be hard but the most rewarding thing we had ever undertaken.  The next day, a Sunday, our first workout was posted —we all, regardless of event would jog from the dorm to Sequoia Drive over 2 miles away for a workout along the Tennessee River. WOW! The jumpers, weight men, hurdlers and all? Yes! 

Coach then explained the distances and his expectations for our minimum time for our runs for each group. He said we would run them daily until we met his threshold. A six-minute mile for a high jumper?  A six: forty-five for a weight man? Was he kidding? Sure. We got a few brief letters from Coach during the summer encouraging us new high school graduates to get in shape.   To assist us in meeting our goals Coach roared off on his little motorcycle, stopwatch in hand, racing between the groups to push them on to greatness.  I think the distance runners actually ran about six miles. 

Most of us came close to or just under his goal but we vastly exceeded anything we thought we were capable of.  That began the path to pushing ourselves to great improvement and eventually many championships. Along the way some dropped out, but those who stayed the course that Chuck expected, many are here today. 

That spring took a long bus ride to Tuscaloosa, AL to Alabama -my home state and were greeted by several of my old HS teammates now running for the Tide.  Let’s go get breakfast – can’t go – we have a workout. Them- How long does it take to stretch and jog some. No -It’s a full workout. Them -but the Track Meet starts at 2:00pm. 

We put on a workout like they couldn’t even imagine. Them -See you at 2:00 and then we are going to kick your asses. 4:00pm after we had blown their doors off – “You guys and your Coach are Certifiably Insane”. And so that’s how they referred to us for the next 4 years.

Our commitment to reach our goals, as improbable as they sounded, was nothing compared to what we saw to be the personal commitment from Coach Rohe himself. 

 Almost every day at 5 a.m. in the Gibbs Hall Athletic dorm on the fourth floor, the elevator slammed open followed by there was a loud yell of “What a Day – you ought to pay to be alive today.” Often it was a lovely Knoxville day – 38 degrees, overcast, with light rain.  Then we would read the daily workout schedule posted on the wall, “Do ALL of the posted workout – all you guys.” Often including a special call out to someone caught sluffing off.  

Chuck believed in a disciplined, aggressive approach.  If you got into trouble, you were out of the great new dorm at Gibbs Hall and were exiled for a quarter to be camped out in section X in the old bowels of the Neyland Stadium. He taught us that life would be filled with tough spots, whether they were insane workouts, injuries, academic difficulties, losses and defeats (temporary), Chuck prepared us for life beyond track.  

Later that year, we took a long 400-mile bus ride to Memphis for a relay event. We had probably 25 to 30 guys on the bus and Coach had gone ahead on a recruiting mission. We started talking about each of our high school achievements and concluded cumulatively we could easily account for over 100 gold medals and several 100 total medals in our state meets. To which some nave responded, “and not a single one of us when we were being recruited ever thought to ask if he had a track”. 

He didn’t.  

The best UT had was a l/5 of a mile cinder path around the football field in Neyland stadium.  Instead, we ran a couple of miles down through the Death Valley urban renewal area, up the hill, to and through Downtown Knoxville, and over to East High School to use their cinder track. The next year, Coach located a tobacco barn with a springy wooden floor that we could use after the tobacco was dried and removed (but not the dust).   It was dry – but colder than a refrigerator. But it greatly advanced our training in most every event and contributed to yet another SEC sweep. 

The owner of the warehouse, Tom Black, also owner of a major food distributor company, became one of our biggest supporters. He donated the majority of the funds to build a brand-new state of the art Tartan all-weather track close to the dorm and all the field event areas giving us the best track in the SEC.   

Behind the dorm, Stokley Center was being built and included real lockers, showers, and a weight room for the entire track team, replacing our former dungeon in the bowels of Neyland Stadium football field. 

Along the way, Chuck had always helped with UT football. We did several sessions with track guys teaching football players, including the lineman, how to improve their sprint form and run faster. In year four under Chuck, he became even more involved in the recruitment of football prospects and in 1967 he became head football recruiter. As part of the deal, he got to have an assistant track coach—his first as he had worked four straight years as a one-man band.   Coach Dickey, who is here today may want to expand on the open mike later after the service about Chuck’s role in not only football recruiting but creating UT as the dual sport leader in the country with Richmond Flowers, Chip, Kell, Karl Kremser and others. In the meantime, Jeff Clark, a former FSU Weightman, and US Marine, was hired as Assistant Coach and introduced a new level of “Worldliness” to the team.  Jeff may want to expand on or defend himself later. 

In 1967 Chuck recruited the first Black Athletes to Tennessee – in Football Lester McClain and Track Audry Hardy and James Craig.

All played, and Succeeded – Audry was UT’s First Black All- America in any Sport.

Another often overlooked achievement was Coach’s nurturing of an aspiring young HS girl quarter miler. Using the same leverage technique -you want our big Named Guys, you have to take a relay team and a couple of other guys – and included Terry on the list. Terry was on her way to big meets and the national level where she excelled. Terry Hull Crawford would go on to coach the first UT women’s track team, win SEC Championships and move on to national prominence at Texas and as the Director of women’s track in the US.

Upon leaving UT, Chuck set the table for his friend Stan Huntsman with a stacked team and a huge list of active top-level recruits, just as he had done for his Successor at Furman, Jimmy Carnes, later his top competition at the U of Florida.

Chuck was an early force for the development of Knoxville Track Club who hosted and served as officials for meets even to this day and has developed into one of the largest youth running programs per capita in the US.

Many other memories – Camp Carolina in Brevard NC, later UT Track Camps in Knoxville, etc – ever growing the UT Track brand.

21 the consecutive SEC championships, some UT athletics appearing on the national scene, the new track and facilities development occurred within only 5 years of Chuck Rohe’s arrival on campus. In 1976 Chuck was recognized as National TF & XC coaches Assn as Coach of the Year and called” The Father of Track & Field in the South”

Chuck mentioned at his recent induction into the UT Athletic Hall of Fame that one of the things that differentiates his UT championship track and cross-country teams was not just that they won a lot and at a high level, but that they held together as a team and supported each other. They still do, as he pointed out as he recognized that over 35 people on short notice appeared for his induction event after over sixty years.

During an early reunion our invited speaker former Auburn track coach Mel Rosen was our featured speaker. Since Joanie wasn’t with me, I volunteered to drive Coach Rosen to the airport. He asked me “What’s with you guys? Nobody ever comes back.” I said “Coach, I’m not sure but if you survived the workouts that Chuck Rohe put us through, I think we are all kind of melted tighter.  We get back together to commiserate, as well as to celebrate.  But seriously, it was to celebrate the man who taught us that we were capable of much more than we could even imagine.”  

In the early 1990s, as I served as Orange County Government Administrator, I received a call from some FCS search committee members from Florida Citrus Sports who were considering Chuck Rohe for Executive Director as had been recommended by Jeff Clark.  They wanted my insight.  

“If you want someone that you—the board—can control, tell what to do, and when to do it, and how to do, etc., then hiring Chuck will be a disaster for you and Chuck.  

But if you want something organized, promoted and developed beyond anything you have currently imagined, and you can work with him setting a vision and goals for your future, you will be amazed beyond your wildest expectations.” 

“And there probably isn’t much in-between.”  

The over twenty years of unprecedented success of the Florida Citrus Bowl speaks for itself and the leadership of Chuck Rohe as Carol Monroe attested. 

Chuck went on the several exceptional business opportunities:

AFL Football; Pace Management, Rohe Associates, and Nike Coaches Football Camps.

Coach exhibited Confidence. At the 1967 SEC indoor track trophy presentation Jimmy Carnes UF coach – quipped to Chuck “Next year, I’ll be standing up there.” Coach Rohe retorted: “As long as I’m here, you’ll be standing down there.” 

I only saw Chuck speechless twice – 

John Nichols – after his SEC l/2-mile defeat of Leland Albright All American in SEC 880 Final at his end of school year meeting with Coach– 

John – “Coach I don’t have much of a scholarship here for an SEC champion.”  Coach: “You’ve got a good scholarship.” 

John: “Somewhere I heard “if better is even possible, good is not enough.”   John got an upgraded scholarship.  

The second flabbergasted moment was his 88th birthday, surprise party. He didn’t plan it, but Dana did and he was hoodwinked. His surprise 88th Birthday in Orlando was attended by 65 people including Coach Doug Dickey. Upon entering the room he was speechless.

Generally, twice a year for decades now, Florida UT trackmen get together at one of our houses to celebrate the UT vs Florida Football fall game and the Kentucky Derby in the Spring.

So what does all of this tell us about Chuck Rohe. 

He was a motivator and developer of young athletes.

He inspired the Dedication, Sacrifice and Confidence for us to exceed our greatest dreams for ourselves.

He promoted equality and fairness for all.

He was compassionate, caring and giving.

He created lasting Institutions and values that are being passed down through generations.

What more could you ask of a MAN.

WHAT A DAY / to celebrate Chuck Rohe.

He will always be in us.