If you were at the University of Arizona’s homecoming festivities back in 1978, that blond gal waving from the back seat of a convertible during the parade — the one wearing the diamond tiara — was homecoming queen Kathleen LaRose, or “Rocky” as she is known to most.
She would become one of the UA’s first softball stars, one of its first female athletics administrators and its first female Athletic Director. She’s retiring this month after 34 years serving the UA.
Born in Illinois in 1957 to Helen and Bob Rockenfield, she was diagnosed at age 3 with bronchitis and other health issues. The Rockenfields wasted little time packing their Chevy and moving to Phoenix.
In 1972, the Congress passed Title IX, which stated, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
As a youngster, her parents encouraged her to play sports. With that encouragement she and her best friend Jayne Hancock signed up for their first summer softball league held near their elementary school.
“It was my first lesson in rooting for others,” she recalls.
Ten months younger than her friend, Rocky was too young to qualify for the team of 8-year-olds. Instead she turned other sports offered to girls, such as archery, tennis, track and field and badminton. She became so good at badminton that she ended up leading her Alhambra High School team to the state title.
Arizona State University, which had a solid badminton program, offered Rocky a full scholarship, but she turned it down. Instead, she went to Glendale Community College for two years so she could play softball with her friends, including her friend Jayne. In her second year, the Glendale team finished second in the national junior college championship.
Additionally, Rocky was recognized as an outstanding student at Glendale, which brought her an academic scholarship to the University of Arizona.
“The University of Arizona only offered athletic scholarships for men up until the mid-1970s,” LaRose recalls. “For women, the recruiting rules were different. They ‘tried out’ for the team rather than being recruited to play. If you expressed an interest, you first played with the team. It was not recruiting as we know it today.”
When the UA began offering athletic scholarships to women, Rocky was one of the first to receive a full-ride athletic scholarship after she had played one year.
“I thought I hit the lottery when they offered me the scholarship,” she says.
Barbara Hedges, who later became the first woman athletic director in the Pac-10 Conference (and second in the U.S.) at the University of Washington, was a UA swimming coach at the time and had become friends with Hancock’s mother. Through that connection, Hedges set up a meeting for the two girls to meet Mary Roby at the UA.
“When Jayne and I met softball coach Ginny Parrish and Mary Roby, we found Mary so enthusiastic about women’s sports. She was bursting with pride that the University of Arizona women’s softball team had just placed second in the nation. As a professor in physical education she also convinced both Jayne and me to seek undergraduate degrees in P.E.,” LaRose recalls.
Rocky played in the infield and batted clean-up, leading the Wildcats to their first conference championship title in 1979.
When Parrish left the UA, Rocky was playing semi-pro Triple A Fastpitch for the Sun City Saints.
“That summer, Mary Roby called and asked if I would accept a 10-month contract to be the 1979-80 interim coach while she did a national search to replace Ginny Parrish.”
While Rocky was coaching she took classes that led to to her receiving her master’s degree in Secondary Education.
“When Mary invited me to be the acting softball coach I was torn. I had offers to teach at Santa Rita High School and Utterback Junior High. At the time I thought teaching might be a lifetime job,” she said.
Roby found her softball coach in Paula Noel but then appointed Rocky as her assistant in the Woman’s Intercollegiate Athletic Department.
“It was just Mary, me, a secretary and a part time sports information director,” LaRose recalled. “Mary reported to (UA atheltic director) Dave Strack, but the men’s and women’s athletic programs were kept separate.”
That separation changed when the UA hired Cedric Dempsey. The men’s and women’s programs merged in 1983. Roby became associate athletic director and LaRose her assistant.
“I walked into Cedric’s office and told him ‘I want to do what you do.’ He told me I needed a background in development. In 1986, I went to the Development Office and worked with Tom Sanders,” she said.
When Roby retired in 1989, Dempsey appointed LaRose as associate athletic director and senior woman administrator.
“For the first several years, I was responsible for only men’s and women’s non-revenue sports,” she said. In the early 1990s, Senior Associate Director of Athletics Bob Bockrath departed for the University of California, “I then became responsible for day-to-day operations for football, men’s basketball, and all 19 sport programs. Since the early ‘90s, my focus has been on internal issues with both coaches and athletes. It’s a new challenge every day, with a focus of putting out the fires.”
LaRose describes her career as mostly doing work behind the scenes to support the UA athletic programs under four directors of atheltics: Strack, Dempsey, Jim Livengood, and now Greg Byrne. She served as UA acting director of athletics from December 2009 to May 2010 before Byrne was hired, which made her the first woman athletics director at the UA.
This month she officially retires as deputy director of athletics.
“I am honored to be the first woman to oversee day-to-day operations of men’s football and basketball. I had a seat next to the athletic director and was a part of every major decision,” LaRose says. “But my greatest joy is being able to say that I grew up from being a Wildcat student-athlete to Arizona’s acting athletic director.”
The UA Athletic Department is planning a retirement celebration Oct. 12
Do you have an historical Tucson story to share? Contact Mary Levy Peachin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her historical columns appear the first week of each month in Inside Tucson Business.