WHERE ARE THEY NOW?: Ken Rochlitz remembers taking VU hoops to NCAA Division I level

2014-05-19T19:00:00Z 2014-05-19T20:34:10Z WHERE ARE THEY NOW?: Ken Rochlitz remembers taking VU hoops to NCAA Division I levelMike Nieto mike.nieto@nwi.com, (219) 933-3232 nwitimes.com

Ken Rochlitz remembers the growing pains when he took over the Valparaiso University men's basketball program.

Rochlitz took over for Bill Purden in 1975-76 as the program transitioned from NCAA Division II to Division I.

"It was tough," Rochlitz said. "We were an independent and we were playing a lot of road games. We were in a transition period and we struggled.

"Making that move is a tough one and I think some schools today face the same struggles we did."

Valparaiso and Indiana Collegiate Conference rival Evansville made the move at the same time. Rochlitz still remembers the fate of the Purple Aces basketball team on Dec. 13, 1977, when all but one player from the team perished in a plane crash.

It hit close to home.

"We were supposed to have that charter, but we got switched at the last minute," Rochlitz recalled. "We took another charter to Columbia, Mo., to play Missouri. I remember how bad the weather was that day.

"Everyone thought it was Valpo's plane that went down. What confusion it caused. The pastor actually came to my front door to console my family."

In four years at Hilltop Gymnasium, Rochlitz was 31-70 for the fledgling program.

"I think it was about 10 years after I left before Valparaiso had a winning record," Rochlitz said. "They have a fine program now and Homer Drew and now Bryce Drew have done a great job of recruiting."

He said he saw the program moving forward, but not fast enough.

"We got better every year I thought," Rochlitz said. "So did everybody else and it was tough to keep up with them. Not being in a conference also made it tough to schedule games.

"We played DePaul, Notre Dame and even Indiana State with Larry Bird."

In February of 1980, Valparaiso played Ray Meyer and his No. 1-ranked Blue Demons. DePaul had Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings, Skip Dillard and Clyde Bradshaw. They were coming off a 1979 Final Four appearance.

"They beat us, but Coach Ray didn't run it up on us," Rochlitz said. "Ray was a true gentleman."

Rochlitz said the Crusaders did what mid-level football and basketball programs do, and that was get a payday for making trips to big-time programs.

"We never got a return game, but we got some money and our kids played against some top opponents," Rochlitz said.

He also had some luck recruiting locally as he signed prep stars like Nolan Pettis (Roosevelt), Jeff Simmons (Highland) and Jeff Markle (Merrillville).

"They were good players and the local names helped put a few more people in the seats," Rochlitz said.

He left Valpo after the 1979-80 season and spent the next 26 years at Northwest College, a community college in Powell, Wyo. He won 542 games and made it into the NJCAA Basketball Coaches and Wyoming Sports halls of fame. He was also president of the NJCAA coaches association.

"Powell is a small community and the town and administration were behind us all the way," Rochlitz said. "Being from Wyoming, this was a great opportunity and I enjoyed it until I retired in 2006."

At Northwest, he recruited and signed Boone Grove's John Meyne, who went on to play ay Valpo.

He and his wife Karla have been married 46 years, and now spend winters in Arizona.

To submit a "Where Are They Now?" idea, contact Mike Nieto at mike.nieto@nwi.com or (219) 933-3232.

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