A week after Penn State women’s volleyball ended its 2017 season with a loss to Nebraska in the national semifinals, the university announced that a member of the coaching staff was retiring from the college game.
Despite a number of rumors that indicated 64-year-old head coach Russ Rose — who has won seven national championships and 17 Big Ten titles at Penn State — might be close to hanging up the clipboard, it wasn’t the 37-year coach who was leaving.
It was Salima Rockwell, the 45-year-old associate head coach, considered by many to be the heir-apparent to the Penn State dynasty. The former Penn State All-American setter — like many who have chosen to leave coaching — cited family and health as the main reasons for her decision.
In a phone interview, she also revealed her plan for the future.
Rockwell is moving back to Austin, Texas, where she and her family lived from 2009 to 2012 while she was a member of the University of Texas coaching staff, and she’ll be the director of volleyball at Junction Athletics — a $30 million, 90,000-square-foot multi-sport athletic campus being constructed on 69 acres in southwest Austin.
“A lot has changed since I’ve been back [at Penn State], a lot with my family, my priorities, what I’m looking for out of life, my health,” Rockwell said. “I need to scale back on how much of my life is actually focused on work and how much of my life can be surrounded by family and taking care of myself as a priority.
“I know that it’s extremely hard for a lot of people to understand, but I do think as people look at their own lives, they can get it when they take a step back. It might seem crazy. It might seem like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe she would do this,’ but I have to start looking out for myself and my family.”
The Junction is the brainchild of former college volleyball player and coach Lindsay Rosenthal (née Treadwell) and former NFL player and current Austin High School athletic director Mike Rosenthal, a couple who were friends of Rockwell and her husband Jeff when they lived in Austin.
“This is something that I knew Lindsay and Mike had been kicking around in their heads for a long time,” Rockwell said. “It was kind of one of those things that Lindsay said if I ever got out of coaching or if there was ever an opportunity for me to join her, she’d love to have me on board. Once we had made a decision for me to get out of coaching college, it was almost a no-brainer to have an opportunity to work with our friends and build something kind of big.”
Construction on the Junction will begin in February, and the facility is predicted to open spring of 2019. It will feature 12 indoor volleyball/basketball courts, four grass football/soccer fields, 12 beach volleyball courts, a 50-meter pool, multi-purpose rooms, on-site physical therapy, food vendors, and a weight room.
With the facility still 15 to 18 months away from being open for business, Rockwell says her position is fluid. Sometime in the next month, she’ll make the move out to Austin, but her family will stay in State College until her sons, Logan and Rylan, finish out the school year, and she’ll travel back and forth between the two locations in the meantime.
Once the school year is complete, Rockwell’s family will join her in Austin. Jeff will also work with the Junction as it gets closer to opening. A longtime martial arts, self-defense, and combat sport practitioner and instructor, Jeff is a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belt with years of experience competing and teaching in multiple disciplines, and he will help in several aspects of programming at the Junction, focusing on functional movement, body awareness, and athletic development.
While the Junction is under construction, Rockwell will help the Rosenthals with the development of the facility, and start reaching out to members of the local volleyball community.
“I just need to get back in the city of Austin to let people know that I’m there, and that I’ll be working at the JAC, associated with the JAC," Rockwell said. "I'll be doing camps and clinics and working on getting some excitement in the air about the JAC. I'm fired up to reconnect with everybody in the city of Austin.”
Despite her excitement about being back in Austin, breaking the news of her departure to the Penn State players and recruits was the difficult. And leaving her alma mater, her college coaching career, and her mentor Rose, stung as well.
“Russ and I have been talking for a long time just about life. We can have these open and candid conversations about what I’m thinking about, so I didn’t blindsided him. It wasn’t something that happened in the last hour,” Rockwell explained. “He has been an excellent sounding board and mentor, so he completely understands where I’m coming from and wants me to be happy and wants me to be healthy. Does he want to lose me? No. Do I want to lose him? Do I want to lose this program? No. But is this the right thing? I’m certain it is, and he is 100 percent supportive of it.”
Another mental battle Rockwell had to fight was allowing herself to be yet another promising female coach to leave the industry.
“It’s a very demanding job and there aren’t a ton of women coaching right now in our sport, and I do and did feel a sense of obligation to stay in it for that reason,” Rockwell said. “But again, as I get older and I become more sure of myself and what I want out of my life, I have to let my personal life drive my decisions and not all the outside factors.
“It’s really hard to get to that point in your life, but it’s also pretty freeing when you can say, ‘I’m ok with this, and sorry, everybody, but this is what I’m going to do.’ I do hope that many women stay in it, but I also do hope for everyone, and it’s not just women, that they also listen to themselves and do what’s best for themselves and their families.”