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RIP Dee Rowe: The once and future conscience of UConn sports

This was one night at the Hart Center, once the hub of New England college basketball, so aptly perched on a lofty hill at Holy Cross. And there was Dee Rowe with the customary rolled-up program, Wooden-esque and impeccably dressed, illustrating the significance of beating the Crusaders, actually running on to the court after the Huskies won the game. Joey Whelton made several free throws late in the game.

Oh, how Dee loved to tell the story about overhearing coaching counterpart — and damn good friend — George Blaney outside the Holy Cross locker room, bellowing, "We're Holy Cross, we're supposed to be smart, so why did we keep fouling Whelton?"

Donald "Dee" Rowe, the once and future conscience of UConn athletics, the "greatest storyteller of all time," as Geno Auriemma calls him, died Sunday at 91. And all of Connecticut mourns the death of a man who did dignity from habit, not reaction; a man who could help celebrate a win with a puckish sense of humor — or use it to capture the pain of defeat and deliver us from it at the same time.

"UConn Nation is grieving the loss of an icon," athletic director David Benedict said.

Dee Rowe all but ran the city of Worcester in the 50s and 60s, coaching basketball at Worcester Academy. He came to UConn in March of 1969 and won 120 games, twice the New England Coach of the Year, and coach of the 1975-76 Sweet 16 team.

He would have coached the 1980 U.S. Olympic team with Dave Gavitt had the U.S. not boycotted. He became a fundraiser later at UConn. But really, Dee Rowe's legacy stands as UConn's greatest ambassador and statesman. Nary was heard a discouraging word about a man who parlayed outer dignity with an understated sense of humor into sublime symphony.

Some stories about Dee:

Peter Abraham, baseball writer for the Boston Globe, who spent many years on the UConn beat at the Norwich Bulletin: "Al McGuire is doing a game at Gampel and I'm watching practice with Dee on the main walkway. Here comes Al walking our way. Dee grabs my arm and says, 'You know, Peter, I've known this bleeping guy for 40 years and he still doesn't know my name. He'll call me 'coach.' McGuire joins us. "Hey Coach!" he says. Dee doesn't pause and looks at me. "Told you so."

More Abraham: "Dee was a hell of a guy. Wrote me the nicest letter after I left the beat. He was one of the few who could calm Jim (Calhoun) down. Great friend of Bob Cousy, too. He was a really good guy. Did anybody not like him? I can't imagine so."

The late Randy Smith, a longtime writer at the Manchester Journal Inquirer, who was on the UConn beat when Dee was coaching. Randy told this story many times in hotel bars: "The fans were getting on Dee after UConn lost one night his first year. He says, "bleep 'em all! The bleepers were 5-19 before I got here!'"

Auriemma: "He carried himself like an old movie star from the 30s and 40s. ... It's just such a cruel twist of fate that Dee should pass during these times. I really don't think Rentschler Field is big enough to have an event for Dee. People would be arriving from around the world."

Kyle Muncy, UConn's Director of Strategic Partnerships, tweeted, "I count myself lucky to be one of the many impacted by coach Rowe. He used to say 'Kyle, the higher you climb, the more your a** shows.' It was his way of reminding me to be humble, work hard and be ready when you get your chance. We will all miss you Coach! Rest in peace."

Tim Tolokan, former sports editor at the Bulletin and later UConn's Sports Information Director/de facto historian: "My first contact with Dee was in February or March of 1969 just before he was named head coach. Back then, The Day and the Bulletin both covered St. Thomas More with Ernie D and Nehru King. They played Worcester Academy, which Dee was coaching, for the prep school championship. That was our first meeting. We've talked about it a million times since.

"Dee looked stylish and distinguished that night, like always. Blue blazer, gray slacks. ... I got to the Bulletin in 1970 and Dee and I became great friends. Dee was one of those guys when he lost a game, he wasn't very different than Jim. Doesn't want to talk to anybody. At the end of a game in Storrs, I'd go over and have a scotch with coach Rowe at his house at the edge of campus that I continued to visit until this past week. This is a huge void for so many people. I've lost my mentor."

Wayne Norman, a student at UConn when Dee arrived and member of the radio broadcast team for the last 40 years: "I go back to day one. I was active at (school radio station) WHUS and saw some classic games as Dee really turned things around his first year. From 5-19 to 14-10. When that season was over, I helped put together a 37-minute highlight package of the season. We walked it over to Dee's house. I've been tight with him ever since.

"Doug Melody, a member of his first team, knew Dee was a social butterfly. So in COVID, Doug set up almost nightly Zoom calls to keep Dee's mind sharp. I think there were 57 different groups of people — so many players who wanted to come on. Five or six guys one night, five or six the next. Then others. Me, Joe D (former UConn play-by-play voice Joe D'Ambrosio), (current assistant coach) Tom Moore ... and Howie (Dickenman) was legendary telling stories. I'm so fortunate to have spent that time with Dee."

And here, we revisit Mitch Albom's timeless line: "Death ends a life, not a relationship."

Dee Rowe probably has no idea how many relationships through which he lives on. Rest in peace to an American original.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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