If Steve Rohlik ever tires of coaching hockey, he could be a world-class competitor in verbal limbo.
Ask the Ohio State coach a question about himself, his coaching style, his secrets to being able to push the Buckeyes to just the second NCAA Frozen Four in program history on Thursday night in St. Paul, Minn., and he bends over backward praising his players, assistant coaches, support staff, the athletic department and fans.
“The end of the day, it really is not about me,” Rohlik said. “This is really about our 27 guys in our program.”
But press him on it, and the answer to what drives him seems to come from his solar plexus.
“I have a passion for this game,” Rohlik, 49, said.
He made that the focal point of his first speech as a head coach when, at 23 years old, he took the helm at his alma mater, Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood, Minn., in 1992. He said he knew he likely was going to make a “zillion mistakes” as he gained his coaching chops, but one thing was going to be clear from the start.
“They were going to feel the passion and they were going to compete,” Rohlik said. The talents of the individuals aside, “to me, if you have the passion and compete, you’re going to give yourself a chance.”
Which leads to quite the re-intersection on Thursday night. The Buckeyes will take on Minnesota-Duluth in the first of the two semifinals, with Michigan and Notre Dame in the other. OSU vs. Duluth will feature mentor vs. pupil with the coaches, because it was longtime Duluth coach Scott Sandelin who saw something he liked in Rohlik and hired him away from Nebraska-Omaha as an assistant in 2000.
It was no surprise what it was.
“He’s a very passionate person,” Sandelin said. “He’s a fiery guy with a lot of knowledge of the game. I loved his passion and his intensity level.
“I think he gets a lot out of players. Their teams have always been very good offensively. Their power plays have always been very good. I know that’s something that he helped put here. He’s a good recruiter. He knows how to build teams, and I think that’s something he was part of here and has carried that right over to his job at Ohio State.”
Rohlik brought it with him when hired by then-Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki as top assistant in 2010. And when athletic director Gene Smith decided a change was needed at head coach in 2013, Rohlik played that passion card and gained the job.
“He just fits our environment and our culture,” said Smith, who in 2016 gave Rohlik an extension through 2021 though he had yet to lead the Buckeyes to the NCAA tournament. “I just could see that he had talent.”
But that was a “big gulp” moment in 2013 for Rohlik, when he became a college head coach for the first time.
“When that time comes it’s a huge responsibility, and you put your time in and you’ve got to make sure you’re prepared through your experience that if you’re ever given that opportunity – you know, sometimes you get one shot at it,” Rohlik said. “You’ve got to go in there and do the best you can and surround yourself with unbelievable people, and that’s what I try to do.”
Now he has Ohio State in the Frozen Four for the first time since 1998, when it lost in the semis. Rohlik already has been named coach of the year in the Big Ten, and he is a serious candidate for the national honor.
“Again, it’s never about me,” he said. “It is truly about the people around you.”