After 39 years, LaRose steps away from UA golf program

As the University of Arizona men’s golf team prepares to begin play tomorrow in the Pac-12 Championships in Oregon, the players are focused on making a better showing than last year’s seventh-place finish.

Their coach, too, is focused on the tournament – even though he’s been here so many times before.  But this one is different for Rick LaRose, since this will be his last.

LaRose has announced he will retire after this season, bringing to an end a 39-year legacy with the school.  For 34 of those years, he has been the head coach.  During that time, his Wildcat teams have been ranked among the top 20 in the nation for 26 of those 34 years, including a string of eight consecutive years that the Cats were ranked in the top three.

He has also had an impact on the women’s program, which will be playing this weekend in their Pac-12 Championships in Pullman, Washington, where Washington State is hosting the event.

LaRose did double-duty, coaching both teams during the same season, from 1996-1998 and again in 2010.  His 1996 women’s team won the 1996 NCAA title.

And, even more remarkable, each squad was ranked No. 1 during those years.

The women, who are playing under ninth-year head coach Melissa Luellen, are ranked No. 17 by Golfstat and No. 14 by Golfweek/Sagarin Poll.  Luellen has taken the team to two conference titles and a national championship in 2009.

The men’s team won the Pac-10 Championship in 2010, but finished seventh in the conference last year and 29th at the NCAA Championships.  Going into this weekend, they are ranked 54th nationally and are coming off a sixth-place finish at the annual Wyoming Cowboy Classic in Scottsdale.

Both teams will find themselves in an uphill struggle this weekend, since the women’s field includes eight teams ranked in the top 25, including three top-10 programs, and the men’s field includes six of the top 12 teams in the country.

But LaRose’s legacy will reside in the many successful seasons he brought to Arizona golf since taking over in 1978.  He built the program into one of the country’s elite, reaching the top as the nation’s No. 1 team 13 different times.

He is the only coach in NCAA history to win both a men’s national championship, which he accomplished in 1992, and a women’s national title four years later.

Since taking over in that 1978-79 season, his golf teams have won 62 men’s tournaments and 19 women’s tournaments.  And on an individual basis, he has produced seven national Players of the Year, 11 conference Players of the Year, and 68 All-Americans.

“It is difficult to overstate the impact Coach LaRose has had on our golf program,” said Arizona’s athletic director, Greg Byrne, in commenting on the pending retirement.  “For nearly four decades, he has built Arizona into one of the elite names in all of college golf.”

But LaRose isn’t leaving the school that has become his second home.  He will turn a new page as a part-time special assistant to the AD, focusing on raising money for a golf practice facility.

Byrne has begun a national search to find a new head coach.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)