Donald E. (Dee) Rowe, former head coach of men’s basketball at the University of Connecticut and UConn’s iconic Athletics and Institutional Ambassador for the past 53 years, passed away early Sunday at his home in Storrs at the age of 91.
Coach Rowe’s remarkable eight-decade professional career included numerous individual honors and was highlighted in 2017 when he was named recipient of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award—the highest and most prestigious award presented by the Hall of Fame outside of Enshrinement. Previous winners of the Bunn Award included John Wooden, Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy and Dave Gavitt.
In December of 2016, Rowe was listed by the Basketball Hall of Fame as a nominee in the contributor category for consideration as an inductee to the Hall of Fame.
Born January 20, 1929 and a native of Worcester, Mass., Rowe “fell in love” with the game of basketball in the third grade. He played scholastically at Worcester Academy and during his collegiate days at Middlebury College (A.B. 1952). He also earned a M.Ed. at Boston University in 1953.
For 13 years (1955-69), Rowe was Director of Athletics and head coach of men’s basketball and baseball at Worcester Academy, building the school’s basketball program into a perennial power in New England prep school ranks. His teams won nine New England Prep School Championships and he compiled a 180-44 overall record. Rowe maintained close personal ties to Worcester Academy for the past 70-plus years as trustee emeritus, always available to assist the school in major fund-raising activities.
In March of 1969, Rowe was named head coach of men’s basketball at the University of Connecticut and directed the UConn program for the next eight years, winning 120 games. He was named New England Coach of the Year twice (1970, 1976), led UConn to a pair of NIT berths (1974, 1975), and guided the 1975-76 UConn team to the ECAC New England Championship, a berth in the NCAA Tournament and UConn advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16.
Rowe’s 21-year head coaching record at Worcester Academy and UConn was 300-132 (69.4%).
The distinguished 53-year professional career for Rowe at the University of Connecticut was divided into three separate and unique careers.
After concluding his head coaching tenure at UConn, Rowe launched the fund-raising arm for UConn Athletics and for the next 13 years (1978-91) he became a national leader as a collegiate athletics fund raiser. He generated millions of dollars in donor giving for UConn and he personally directed the effort to raise more than $7 million in private donations to support the building of the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion/Sports Center Complex, which opened in 1990.
For the past 30 years, since his official UConn “retirement” at the end of calendar year 1991, Rowe remained actively involved at the school in his emeritus role as Special Adviser for Athletics.
Known worldwide as one of the great ambassadors for the game of basketball, Rowe became a once-in-a-lifetime mentor and friend to thousands of individuals. The special bond he maintained with his players from Worcester Academy and the University of Connecticut provided a linkage that was never broken.
A skilled orator, Rowe remained an in-demand speaker well past his 90th year, always offering a message of passionate optimism while displaying his unmatched charismatic style with a smile.
In 1979, Rowe was a key “behind the scenes” influence as his close personal relationship with Big East Conference founder Dave Gavitt helped pave the way for the University of Connecticut to be invited as a charter member into the newly formed collegiate league.
In 1980, Rowe experienced what he called “the greatest thrill of my personal basketball life” when he represented his country as Assistant Coach of the United States Men’s Basketball Olympic Team, joining Gavitt, the head coach, and fellow assistant coach Larry Brown as USA Olympic Basketball Coaches.
That 1980 team did not participate in the Olympics because of the United States boycott of the Moscow games, but Rowe later became the special guest of UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma at the 2012 London games as Auriemma led Team USA to the gold medal.
Rowe played a pivotal role as a member of two UConn search committees in the mid-1980s that brought Auriemma (1985) and Jim Calhoun (1986) to the University of Connecticut.
Under the Big East banner, UConn won 11 NCAA Basketball Championships (eight women, three men) and a combined total of 55 Big East Conference regular season and tournament titles, positioning UConn as the most successful basketball school in Big East Conference history.
Rowe was involved during the 1960s and 1970s in numerous national level coaching clinician activities including: in 1973 representing the U.S. State Department Partners of Americas Basketball Exchange Program throughout Brazil. He also served as an assistant coach at the 1975 U.S. National Team Intercontinental Cup Games; coach at the 1976 U.S. Olympic Basketball Trials; and an assistant coach for the 1980 Big East Conference All-Star tour of Yugoslavia.
Rowe has been the recipient of numerous honors during his long and distinguished professional career.
In February of 2007, Rowe was one of the members of the elite inaugural class of inductees to the UConn Basketball “Huskies of Honor”. Also in 2007, the University of Connecticut awarded Rowe with the “University Medal”, one of the school’s most prestigious honors established by the Board of Trustees to recognize individuals who “have had a significant influence on the University.”
Rowe received the “Gold Key” from the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance and was a member of the inaugural class of honorees in the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 2014, the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) honored Rowe with its Lifetime Achievement Award in ceremonies at Madison Square Garden and in 2015 was named to the ECAC Hall of Fame.
Other honors bestowed upon Rowe included: Nutmeg State Games “Living Legend Award”; National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Merit Award; Connecticut High School Coaches Association Distinguished Service Award; Dee Rowe Endowed Athletic Scholarship at the University of Connecticut; Rowe Family Endowed Athletic Scholarship at Worcester Academy.
Dee Rowe was predeceased by his wife of 64 years Virginia (Ginny) Bradford Rowe, who passed away on July 5, 2018.
DEE ROWE TALKING ABOUT BASKETBALL AND LIFE
—To be called “Coach” is the greatest praise I could ever receive.
—My world is about the game of basketball…it’s about people, it’s about friendships, it’s about life-long bonds and relationships.
—Basketball is about the kids, the game, the coaches.
—I truly believe it is my responsibility to make life a little bit better for the kids.
—You never know what impact you can have on people.
—I’m a basketball junkie, a purist. My passion for the game I love has never waned.
—I’m a kid from Worcester who fell in love with the game of basketball in the third grade and never left New England.
—For more than 50 years, I’ve been so proud to wear a UConn jersey and be part of the University of Connecticut team.
—I always wanted to be a teacher about the game of basketball…and the game of life.
KNOWING DEE ROWE
“Dee Rowe is one of God’s children…his entire life he has reached out to assist others. He is as saintly as any friend I’ve ever had and the game of basketball has given Dee a vehicle to do his magic.”
– Bob Cousy (Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer)
“I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend time with and develop a relationship with Dee over the past five years.
UConn Nation is grieving the loss of an icon. As a Coach, mentor and most importantly a friend, Dee has touched many of us in so many ways.
I feel totally inadequate to be able to fully express what Dee meant to the University of Connecticut, but Dee will be forever woven into the fabric and a part of who we are and what we stand for.
Over the course of a lifetime, we are all blessed to come into contact with people that leave an indelible imprint on your life. Dee Rowe will forever impact my life and I can only hope to continue to lead the athletics department at UConn in a way that would make him proud.
– David Benedict (UConn Director of Athletics)
“Today is a very sad day as we mourn the loss of a Legend, Dee Rowe. Coach Rowe meant so much to me and our Football program since I arrived in 1999. Even though he was a Basketball Coach, he always talked with me about his days playing TE growing up.
Coach Rowe would come by my office every Friday or call if he couldn’t make it in person, to say good luck to me and the coaches for our Saturday game. He always had just the right words for every moment. Being a first time Head Coach and having someone like Coach Rowe to talk with and tap his wealth of knowledge about coaching and dealing with people was invaluable to me. Without him, I don’t know if I would have been able to make it through those years. He was always in support of you whether you Won, Lost or Tied.
He was an administrator who coached and understood the highs and lows of coaching and knew what you were going through and always had the right advice for me. I’ll always be thankful for my relationship with Coach Rowe and I will never forget what he did for me and my family here at UConn. He was and still is THE BEST and he can never be replaced.
Thanks for making a difference in my life as well as many others. Love you, and may you forever Rest In Peace.”
– Randy Edsall (UConn Head Football Coach)
“Every Husky knows Dee Rowe as the chief ambassador of UConn Nation. I know him as an original mentor and great friend of mine. I’m not the UConn baseball coach without him. And, I like so many others, am a better person for knowing his love for his family, for those he coached, and for those he inspired. To know Coach was to be inspired by him. My prayers go out to his wonderful family and to all those he touched. He will be missed in the stands this spring in Storrs, but his immensely positive impact will remain forever.”
– Jim Penders (UConn Head Baseball Coach)
Dee Rowe has been a special person in my life for the 50 plus years that I’ve known and admired him—both as a great basketball coach and an even better person.
He was a New England original—the Governor of New England—born in Worcester, moved to Storrs, loved the Cape…and never left. I can relate because my historical journey is very similar.
I will always treasure his friendship, his constant wise counsel, and his continuing encouragement.
From that day in May of 1986 when Dee told me I needed to accept the challenge and take the UConn coaching job he has always been in my corner rooting for me, my family, and my teams.
Dee Rowe is a once-in-a-lifetime mentor who had a relentless pursuit of helping people and doing good. He will not, and cannot, be duplicated or replaced.
– Jim Calhoun (UConn Men’s Basketball Head Coach, 1986-2012)
“There are certain rare people who enter our lives and make us feel better after every encounter—that’s Dee Rowe.”
– Bob Ryan (Boston Globe Sports Columnist)
“You taught me what success was, to reach your potential, to live your life with respect and admiration, and to provide serviced and contributions to mankind. If that’s the definition of success, I know of no one more successful than my coach—Dee Rowe.”
– Jim Valvano (Dee Rowe’s Assistant Coach at UConn)
“There were two people that I knew I could never disappoint in my life. One was my father and the other was Dee Rowe.”
– Mike Tranghese (former Big East commissioner)
The children of Dee Rowe have set up an endowment to support programs and services for patients and their families at the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health.
The endowment honors Rowe and his wife, Ginny, and the tremendous care and support that they and family members have received at the cancer center over the years.