All the seasons of glory and days of thunder are gone, except on the fresh-trimmed fields of memory. The old coach still prowls those sidelines.
Tom Roggeman is a monument of a man, the sum of life as a football coach.
“Rogge’s” rare breed gives the game of football a worthiness beyond won-loss records, personal acclaim and fortune. They give it a sacred character.
He’s 76 now and alone, his lovely wife, Florence having died after their 49 years together.
“I probably would have cashed it in when Florence passed,” he said, “but the kids all made it home and stayed with me for a while. At one time we had 13 in the house, kids and grandkids. They didn’t give me time to slip into remorse.”
Home now is Granger, Ind., near Mishawaka, where Tom was a high school star.
He and Florence retired to Indiana in the mid-’90s after Tom worked under head coach Larry Smith at USC. Before that, he coached at Arizona for seven years under Smith. Roggeman first came to UA on the staff of Tony Mason in 1977.
Captain of Purdue’s 1952 Big Ten Conference co-champions, then a Marine and then a lineman for the Chicago Bears, he coached for 37 years, seven at the high school level followed by 25 years of college ball.
Roggeman’s skills were far more than X’s and O’s. He was a carnival barker and the football field was his midway.
When the team needed a motivational speech, he was always the speaker. Was he ever! Rogge was William Jennings Bryan tearing into that “Cross of Gold,” Franklin D. Roosevelt pointing to a “Rendezvous With Destiny,” Ronald Reagan telling Russia to “Tear Down That Wall.”
And when he finished, a little army of fired-up football players was ready to tear down any wall.
Too many coaches today live in a private apathy born of fatalism, rather than passion born of hope. They play the part rather than living the life, not realizing their bluff is transparent.
“What I remember most about our time at Arizona,” Roggeman said over the telephone, “was the camaraderie players developed when they got to UA. Some were highly recruited, some were not. We didn’t get a lot of blue-chippers. But we got guys who really wanted to play.
“The bigger the team that was coming in to Tucson, the more fired up our kids got. We were never ready to concede. The other guys might have been highly favored to beat us, but they had to do it on the field.
“We were never beaten before the game started. Our kids just rose up. . . . It was the Gunfight at the OK Corral every doggone Saturday.”
And Rogge looked the part of a tough guy – hefty, muscular and bald.
At Southern Cal, the student section loved the old coach and called him “Uncle Fester” after the goofy ghoul on television’s Addams Family series.
Rogge has been sacked a few times in recent years. In addition to losing Florence, whom he coached in the weight room he built at their Indiana home, he has undergone two hip replacements and not that long ago, had major back-reconstruction surgery.
“I was using a walker for a while,” he said. “My kids put a basket on it, like you’d put on a bicycle, so I could carry things. I’m on a cane now, but that limits you to one hand. So the walker with a basket comes in handy at times.”
Carrying on the respected family name in the sport, sons Buck and Rock Roggeman are football coaches.
Both played high school ball in Tucson. Buck went on to Stanford and is a successful high school coach at Pacific Grove, Calif. Rock, nicknamed for the great Knute Rockne of Notre Dame, played for the Fighting Irish and is on the staff of Skip Holtz at East Carolina.
Time and a battered body have done nothing to lessen their dad’s love for football. The thump of padded gladiators slamming into each other still echoes in Rogge’s mind, and it can inspire the old coach to unpack his heart.
No one ever loved the game more. And few coaches were ever more loved than Tom Roggeman.
Retired Citizen columnist Corky Simpson writes every Saturday.
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