Since Aaron Roussell stepped on Bucknell’s campus in April of 2012, he was tasked with rebuilding a program that had only won five games the season prior to his arrival. All the two-time Patriot League Coach of the Year has done since his arrival is lead the Bison to a 101-56 (.643) record, two Patriot League Regular Season Championships, one Patriot League Tournament Championship, and two post-season berths (one NCAA Tournament).
This was not Roussell’s first rebuild, as he did the same from 2004 to 2012 as the Head Coach at the University of Chicago, but his passion for the game of basketball started years before he was even a Head Coach. “I’ve always had a passion for coaching basketball, but I never thought I could ever make a career of it,” said Roussell. “I started working camps when I was 15 and actually coached a freshmen boys’ travel team my senior year in high school.”
Roussell, a Minnesota native, went to college expecting to go to law school, but had a professor during his senior year convince him to follow a dream while he was young, which motivated Roussell to return to coaching. “I coached high school boys for a year and quickly made it a goal to never do anything else for a profession other than coach basketball. From there I caught a few breaks and am very grateful for how things have worked out,” said Roussell.
After two seasons as a Graduate Assistant Coach at Minnesota State University-Makato, he accepted an Assistant Coach position at the University of Chicago in 2004. A short time after he started, he was thrust into the Head Coach role and hasn’t looked back. In eight seasons, he became the all-time winningest coach in program history with a 161-50 (.763) overall record, including three UAA Championships and four NCAA Tournament berths.
After the 2011-12 season, he was approached with the opportunity to take over a struggling Bucknell program and embraced the challenge. He realized that he needed to establish a clear and consistent level of expectations that would be embraced by his student-athletes and strategic, genuine points of emphasis for his coaching staff to follow in order to rebuild the program. Roussell said, “We talked a ton about “High Standards and High Expectations” during our first year and it is the still the header on our one-page list of program guidelines. We aimed to improve the culture that first year, but we had a longer-term plan and didn’t come in with a swooping list of changes right away. We had to get to know our players and allow them to want to change some things and be active leaders in those changes.”
Roussell’s expectations and points of emphasis have paid off, as Bucknell has increased their win total during each season he has led the program. The culmination of hard work paid off in 2016-17 with the Bison winning a program-record 27 games and winning the Patriot League Regular Season and Tournament Championships, resulting in an NCAA Tournament berth.
Roussell has rebuilt and established two basketball programs at very strong academic universities, but academics have and will always remain a priority. “I think academics are easy to embrace because I feel strongly that this is the way it should be,” said Roussell. “I pride myself and our program in preparing our student-athletes to achieve much greater things than they will ever accomplish on a basketball court. While they are here with us, I firmly believe that giving your all to the highest of standards is a learned skill that aids in them achieving incredible things in their post-grad life.”
Having a family of his own, with wife, Molly, and three children, Riley, Kelsey, and Kendall, has also played a significant role in how he manages his program. “I find myself constantly putting myself in our players’ parents’ shoes and making sure that everything we are doing has their child’s best interests for their future in mind. Looking back, I probably always thought like that even before having kids of my own but I would say I’m more cognizant of it now,” said Roussell.
Roussell’s message to his team has remained consistent over his six seasons leading the Bucknell program, but there are three phrases that aren’t allowed to be said within his program. “I can’t”, “That’s not my job”, and “That’s good enough” aren’t allowed to be said, but one question we always want to ask “How can I help?”, said Roussell. “We feel if we hold ourselves to these and do everything to the highest of standards that good things will happen for us.”
When asked about the hardest part of coaching, Roussell emphasized the challenge of sometimes having to be hard on the people he loves, his players. “I don’t think any parent or coach wants to be “mean”, but as a leader you need accountability and hard work in your program and those traits need to be developed in each member of your team,” said Roussell. “Sometimes that requires tough conversations and important lessons to be taught, with hopes that it helps them and your program down the road. It is imperative though that relationships are built strongly enough that your athletes know that your message comes from love and is in their best interest.”
It is this passion and care for his players that has played a big role in the Bison earning respect, not just within the Patriot League, but nationally.
Written originally for CollegeInsider.com on November 21, 2017.