Mel Rosen, who retired after 28 years as a renowned track and field coach at Auburn University to lead one of the most decorated American track teams in the history of the Olympics, died on Sunday in Auburn, Alabama. He was 90.
The university announced his death.
A New York City native, Rosen was named head coach of the 1992 U.S. men’s track team after turning out world-class sprinters at Auburn and leading the Tigers to five SEC championships.
The Olympics team, with a powerful roster that included Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis, two of the world’s best-ever sprinters, went on to win 20 medals at the Barcelona Games, including eight gold, and broke three world and five Olympic records, the best showing by Americans since 1956.
Olympic coaches generally do more hand holding than coaching, but Rosen was tested in Barcelona when some of his runners objected bitterly to the makeup of the two relay teams. They contended that Johnson and Lewis had not followed the usual qualifying steps for the relays.
Rosen countered that he had the right to use the two sprinters if he thought they would improve the teams. He called the dissent “a matter of egos” and made the changes.
As The Chicago Tribune said of him at the time: “He figured that being named to the largely ceremonial position as head coach of the U.S. Olympic track team would be a nice way to begin his retirement. Instead, Rosen is trying to sort out the whims, whines, shouts and pouts of a dozen athletes, some of whom are not loath to turn into louts at the slightest provocation.”
With Lewis running the anchor leg, the United States won the 4×100-meter gold medal in 37.40 seconds, a world record. With Johnson running the third leg, the Americans won the 4×400-meter gold medal in 2 minutes 55.74 seconds, another world record. (Lewis also won the gold that year in the long jump.)
On international teams, Rosen treated his runners as adults. Before the 1987 world championships, in which he coached the American men, he told Track and Field News: “My philosophy on this is that these guys want to do the job. It’s a very important meet for world rankings and other things, so they’re not going to be fooling around.”
Melvin Rosen was born on March 24, 1928, in the Bronx and grew up in Brooklyn. He became a middle-distance runner at the University of Iowa and graduated in 1950 with a degree in physical education. He then became an assistant coach at Iowa for three years while earning a master’s degree in physical education and working two years toward a doctorate.
After two years in the Army, he was hired by Auburn in 1955 as an assistant professor of physical education and assistant track coach. He was named head coach in 1963.
At the time, Auburn’s track team was granting six athletic scholarships a year while Southeastern Conference rivals were awarding as many as 23.
Rosen successfully pressed the university to grant more, to become more competitive in the conference, and he went on to turn out seven Olympians, eight NCAA champions and 143 All-Americans. He was named NCAA coach of the year three times and the Southeastern Conference coach of the year four times.
Among the Olympians he coached were Harvey Glance, a sprinter who won a gold medal in the 4×100-meter relay at the 1976 Games in Montreal, and Willie Smith, who won gold in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as part of the 4×400 relay squad.
In retirement, Rosen was a consultant and occasional volunteer coach with the Auburn track team.
He was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1995, the first year he was eligible, and the U.S. Track Coaches Hall of Fame in 2001.
Rosen’s wife of 57 years, the former Joan Kinstler, died in 2014. He is survived by two daughters, Laurie Lami and Karen Rosen; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren, Auburn said.
In many ways Rosen is also survived by Glance, whom he called “the son I never had.” Glance succeeded him as Auburn coach and was later head coach at Alabama.
Rosen told The New York Times in 1986 of the dedication of the 5-foot-71/2, 148-pound Glance.
“In 1977,” Rosen said, “we went to Bulgaria for the World University Games. The other guys on the team went out to have fun. My son made me go out with him to find a weight room. We found one, and there were two Bulgarian female shot-putters there. One of them must have weighed 235 pounds and the other 240. My son outlifted both of them.”