Russ Rose will be the first one to tell you that he doesn’t believe in moral victories.
The Hall of Fame coach has been the face behind a Penn State program that has arguably been the premier program in the sport since the 1990s.
A large part of this success can be attributed to the Rose’s results-oriented mindset.
“I have been coaching [at Penn State] for 41 years, and I want to win every match,” Rose said. “I do not view losing a competitive match and say, ‘Oh, we were so close,’ I look like it as, ‘If you are going to do something, either do it the best or you should not do it at all.’”
Over the course of his tenure at Penn State, Rose has led the program to seven NCAA National Championships; the first came in 1999, then in each year from 2007 through 2010, and most recently in 2013 and 2014. In that eight-year stretch from 2007-14, the Nittany Lions won six national titles and qualified for the Final Four seven times, losing a total of only 12 matches in that span.
Penn State has won at least 22 matches in each of the 41 seasons played under Rose. In fact, Stanford is the only other program to have appeared in every NCAA tournament since the NCAA championship began in 1981.
At the conclusion of the 2014 championship run, Rose’s career winning percentage was .866, which was ranked as the highest in NCAA history by the AVCA.
However, since the Nittany Lions last won a national championship five years ago, the team has only won just over 81 percent of its games.
Now for most programs, winning more than 80 percent of its games in a season would be more than enough.
But for a program as prestigious as Penn State, a noticeable dip in winning percentage and a lack of Final Four appearances — just one in the last four seasons — could be a cause for concern.
“For me, it’s all about the results, and not about the fight,” Rose said. “If you do not get the results, the fight [during a match] does not really seem to have the same impact.”
Rose’s mentality toward competing and winning at the highest level is part of the engine behind the success of this program.
However, in recent years, the Nittany Lions have not had the same level of success on the court, especially when competing against the other elite programs at this level.
Including last weekend’s matches against Stanford and Oregon, Penn State is only 10-19 against teams ranked in the top 10 of the AVCA Coaches Poll since the start of the 2015 season.
This is a stark contrast from how the Nittany Lions performed against the higher-caliber programs during the late 2000s and the first half of this decade.
Comparatively, Stanford has remained consistent, dominating the Pac-12 on a yearly basis and making deep NCAA tournament runs for the better part of the past 30 years.
The Cardinal have won two of the last three national championships, knocking off Penn State in the 2018 Elite Eight in the process. In fact, Stanford’s 37-match win streak came to an end at the hands of Minnesota just one night after the Cardinal fended-off an early challenge from the Nittany Lions to win a competitive four-set match on the road.
For the Nittany Lions, Friday’s defeat marked the fourth time in the last five matches that Penn State has lost to Stanford. Only Nebraska — another elite program — has experienced that kind of success against Russ Rose and co.
“Any time you get an opportunity to play against one of the top teams in the country, you have to take advantage of their mistakes because they won’t make many of them,” Rose said. “Your weaknesses are often exposed against the great teams.”
Penn State’s recent shortcomings against elite competition cannot be explained through one singular factor. But in the case of the past two seasons, the team’s youth might be a driving factor behind these results.
The Nittany Lions are carrying 15 underclassmen on the roster this season, an obvious disadvantage in comparison to the likes of senior-laden teams like Stanford and Minnesota.
That being said, from 2015-17, Russ Rose’s side was a much more experienced bunch, but still struggled with getting over the hump against top 10 teams.
As it pertains to this season, the most optimistic outlook for this young Penn State group would be if the Nittany Lions can build on these losses and use them as building blocks for matches against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska when Big Ten play gets underway in the coming weeks.
“I think one thing that we have learned from these type of matches [against top-tier opposition] is that we can’t let one bad set, or match turn into two,” sophomore right side Jonni Parker said. “These matches are valuable learning experiences for us as a team, and we’ll need to be better prepared and more mentally sharp for the next time we take the court.”