Off Campus: Remembering ex-Widener coach C. Alan Rowe

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Former Widener coach C. Alan Rowe , who died at age 84, kept opponents off balance with his 1-3-1 defense. File photo

I once spent a day with Widener University basketball coach C. Alan Rowe, which meant going to class. Even at age 63, Rowe was teaching five Widener math courses a semester. He seemed to know all the names of his students without a seating chart. His first words to one calculus class: "Your hats, gentlemen."

This was 1994. This man was delightfully old school. Rowe never complimented his players - like ever, even his favorites. He simply drilled them in the principles that he held dear.

"Every time I saw C. Alan in church, he would ask me, 'Are you playing the 1-3-1 yet?' " said St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who played for Rowe at Widener.

That was Rowe's trademark, an aggressive 1-3-1 defense, with variations that kept opponents off balance, producing 536 career victories over 33 seasons, ending in 1998. His teams reached the NCAA tournament 11 times, were in the top 20 in the nation in fewest points allowed a couple of dozen times. Widener twice got to the final four and reached the College Division title game in 1978.

Rowe, who lived in Middletown Township in Delaware County, died early Thursday morning, at age 84. To anyone who was around him much, Rowe's rat-a-tat, matter-of-fact voice and manner linger.

Ask any basketball person about C. Alan Rowe, his mind will go to the 1-3-1.

"He stretched it, he sank it, he changed it into a 1-2-2," Martelli said Thursday after telling the audience at a Coaches vs. Cancer luncheon that Rowe had died. "I actually sat with him one of my early years at St. Joe's - I sat with him one September. I still couldn't get it, the intricacies - and his belief in it. That was the biggest deal. He was a lot like John Chaney in that John Chaney believed the zone was the way, and C. Alan believed that the 1-3-1 was it."

Rowe trusted his 1-3-1 so much that he was unafraid to pull it out to halfcourt with a one-point lead in the final seconds, believing opponents would get rattled by the unexpected pressure.

He also didn't believe that coaching Division III basketball was really any different from any other level.

"If you can coach, you can coach," Rowe once told me. "If you can recruit, you can recruit."

It didn't matter that the 35-second shooting clock at Widener for years went to only 30 seconds, that the clock operator counted down the last five seconds by hand. Rowe's greatest rivalry may have been with John Chaney when Chaney coached Cheyney.

Chaney told me about the time he played in a tournament at Widener and managed to pull out the game.

"They couldn't give us the trophy - they had to send it to us," Chaney said. "Alan had already put his name on the trophy."

Rowe never confirmed nor denied the tale.

"I saw some things that just shouldn't have happened," Rowe's longtime sports information director, John Douglas, told me in '94. "Cheyney came in 6-1 one year. They were coming off a Final Four year. Widener is 0-7. We'd lost to some bad Division III teams. C. Alan benched his senior captain. He starts three freshmen and two sophomores. . . . Widener wins by one."

"He was an original," Martelli said, recalling how he was an assistant coach when Widener went to the NCAA title game in 1978, how it had held its semifinal opponent to something like 45 points.

"We're playing for the national championship that night," Martelli said. "At practice, we're focused on how the other team had scored 45 points. We went over every one of those 45 points."

The son of a railroad man, Rowe graduated from Villanova but got his first high school coaching job at age 19, at Lansdale Catholic. He coached at five high schools before taking the Widener job. He owned the Dairy Queen on Route 320 in Springfield, Delaware County, for years. He once was offered the head job at Division I Fairleigh Dickinson, he said, but declined to get on that merry-go-round.

He set up his life around his sport.

"Our first three dates were six games at Madison Square Garden," said his wife, Gail.

Rowe is survived by his wife and children, Kathy, Kelly, Jeff, and Jim, who all attended Widener.

A viewing will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at the Rigby Harting & Hagan Funeral Home at 15 E. Fourth St. in Media. Another viewing will be held at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, followed by a Mass at 11 a.m. at St. Mary Magdalen Church at 2400 Providence Rd. in Media.

There will be stories flowing. Nobody other than Herb Magee at Philadelphia University has coached as long at one Philadelphia-area college as Rowe did at Widener, where he is the winningest coach in any sport. Again, the coach taught the whole time, doing all the grading himself, those five courses a semester.

"It's not multiple-choice questions," Rowe told me. "I give partial credit."

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus