Men's Basketball | February 12, 2018
10 Tote Forecast HippoWarehouse litres Gym Chance Bag x38cm Shopping Drinking Beach Netball of with 42cm Coral a Weekend "We're at the SEC Tournament in Nashville and we had just beaten Missouri. We got on the bus to go back to the hotel to prepare, because we play every night, so we're getting ready for a walkthrough the next morning. Coach (Andy Kennedy) gets a phone call that Marshall is back across the street from the arena at a bar with Ole Miss fans whooping it up. That's a 'clean' Marshall Henderson story."
Sergio Rouco has stories, if the above didn't make that abundantly clear. About basketball, about life, honed as an outsider who pushed his way into the upper levels of basketball based on smarts, personality and pure guts.
Born in Cuba, Rouco's parents fled the oppressive regime when he was three years old—in fact, he celebrated his third birthday aboard a boat his father stole specifically for the voyage from Cuba to Miami. Once there, his parents set up residence and never left—now 88 and a recently-turned 84 (happy belated birthday, Mrs. Rouco), they still reside in Rouco's adopted hometown, his mom having worked as a seamstress and while his dad ran the greenhouse at Calder Race Course for 32 years.
As a kid, Rouco wasn't any kind of basketball standout—he's been coaching since he was 18, after being cut from powerhouse Miami Senior, when he took up coaching AAU as a way to get his basketball fix.
That eventually led to an assistant spot at Miami Senior and the rest, as Rouco says, is history. He parlayed that into a head coaching gig at Loyola High School in 1986—he graduated college from Nova Southeastern the next year—before jumping into the college game as an assistant at Florida International, the first of three stints at FIU on his coaching CV. He returned to the prep ranks at Miami Norland, a stop he calls the most rewarding of his career to this point.
"All of my collegiate stops have been great experiences, but to be honest my most rewarding experience was being the head coach at Miami Norland," he said. "I reached a lot of kids who are now very successful men and are parents themselves. It was the most rewarding four years of my coaching career."
In 1995, Rouco graduated seven players who would go Division I. He didn't want to get pigeonholed as a high school coach; he wanted the next challenge. He got that and more when he took off for the Caribbean.
"In the Dominican Republic, I took over a young team that had lost many, many games. I would play my young kids, 17 or 18 years old, when we were up 20 and the games would finish and we'd win by eight, nine, 10 points. What I didn't know was that there were point spreads, and that those were important to some people out there who were betting. One day outside our locker room, they grabbed this lady who had a knife; long story short, somebody paid her to stab me in the back so they'd send me back home because my teams wouldn't cover the spread. And you can confirm this with (current Austin Peay assistant coach) Rick Cabrera, whose dad coached in the Dominican and knows the whole story; nobody told me the story until the season ended."
The pro leagues in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are not for the faint of heart. Combine town-to-town rivalries, cram 12,000 people into an arena with no air conditioning, mix in a little rum and some not-so-friendly wagering and there's a recipe for danger. Things were hurled at players—ice, batteries, marbles. An otherwise peaceful game could be interrupted by gunshots at any moment.
After a few years with that for a gameday environment, Rouco isn't one to be particularly bothered by a little booing or heckling.
Coaching professionally overseas was certainly interesting, but Rouco felt called to return to collegiate coaching for reasons that went beyond personal safety.
"When you go overseas, there's no insurance, there's no healthcare," he said. "You lose three games in a row and they fire you. College basketball is where it's at. Even coaches who coach professionally overseas adore college basketball, the environment and the liveliness, the different styles across the board. This is where you want to be if you're an American basketball coach.
"For me, it was an incredible experience. (But) it makes you appreciate having a place where you don't have to worry about your sanity and your well-being."
He got his chances again upon his return from international coaching, returning to FIU in 2000 before heading to UTEP with Billy Gillespie in 2003. A year in El Paso, where he helped the Miners win 24 games and advance to the NCAA Tournament, brought him the gravitas to get the head coaching gig in his third stint at Florida International—an opportunity he enjoyed and would gladly undertake again, in the right circumstances.
"I'd like to have the head coaching opportunity again if it was at the right place," he said. "I've found my fit with Coach Figger and his style, morals and values toward young people. I like him and I'm going to be with him until something that really blows my mind comes along."
Whatever opportunities Rouco has garnered have always been with an eye toward mentoring. The whole reason he got into coaching and stuck with it hasn't changed in 31 years, from Miami Norland to Ole Miss during the Henderson years to now in his turn at Austin Peay. And college is where he's felt his skillset can be maximized when shaping a young man's future.
"In high school, they're really not ready for life," Rouco said. "College is where they take that huge step to becoming a man. Young kids are so confused; you coach in college because you want to make a difference for young people. None of us got into this for money; that comes later, if you have success."
Take the aforementioned Henderson, one of college basketball's most enigmatic players of the last 20 years. Rouco has stories about Henderson, and of course there were some moments he got frustrated with Henderson, just like any coach gets frustrated with any player.
But he also holds a perspective on Henderson, as his coach, that few ever got. Not as the bad-boy of college hoops or an out-of-control problem.
Just as a kid, looking for a little guidance.
"Marshall Henderson took total abuse in the SEC," Rouco said. "Nobody wrote about what was said to him or his mom or his sister, just his rebuttal. That kid had it hard, took abuse everywhere he went. Once you get personal, there's no place for it. Marshall had his issues, and in our society now our common college kid has issues. But he's in the spotlight and so they were magnified. I'd take him on my team. Marshall has been to my house; his sister babysat my kid's for three years in Oxford. I'd open my door to him tomorrow. I love him to death."
As the sage hand of many coaching staffs—31 years in the profession, after all—Rouco has lasted because of his relationships, both with players and coaches and his ability to connect with players overseas. From Puerto Rico to Estonia, Rouco has brought players over to get an education and enhance their skills, offering both an enticing opportunity in America and experienced hand to guide the transition.
"I speak, Spanish, I speak English and I speak basketball," Rouco said. "In 1987, when I got into the profession in Miami, it was easier to get to Puerto Rico or the Dominican than it was to drive to Atlanta. Using my language and the connections I had down there, that's where I started. I wouldn't be a Division I basketball coach 31 years later if I had not been able to connect with people."