Last race looming closer for CU Buffs skiing legend Richard Rokos

After 31 seasons, Rokos leads Buffs into NCAA Championships for final time

Colorado skiing head coach Richard Rokos drew double duty this week, hosting the NCAA championships while trying to coach the defending national champions to another victory.
Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer
Colorado skiing head coach Richard Rokos drew double duty this week, hosting the NCAA championships while trying to coach the defending national champions to another victory.

In a week, once the final race is complete for the University of Colorado ski team, Richard Rokos at long last will stare into a future that doesn’t include Buffaloes.

For 31 seasons, Rokos has been the face of the program that hoarded national championships. He reshaped the program into a team unit rather than two separate entities focused on Nordic and alpine disciplines and has mentored skiers who have collected a boggling 43 individual NCAA championships over three decades.

Off the slopes, Rokos also moonlights as a Justice of the Peace, and the mentorship of his athletes has included officiating the weddings of more former CU Buffs skiers than he can remember. So when the day comes in a few weeks that Rokos is forced to clean out his office — stuffing 31 years of memories and milestones into cardboard boxes — the CU legend already knows it will be a more emotionally-charged chore than sending the Buffs into competition one last time.

“I’m sure packing my office will be not easy for me,” Rokos said, “but I’ve done worse things in my life.”

In typical Rokos fashion, that’s a colossal understatement.

Rokos announced last summer that his 31st season at CU will be his last, and that long, slow goodbye will culminate this week as the Buffs compete at the NCAA Championships in New Hampshire. More than 40 years ago, Rokos defected from his native Czechoslovakia with the simple hope of pursuing a better life for his family which, at the time, included an 18 month-old daughter. Never in his wildest dreams did Rokos imagine that decades later he would be one of the most decorated skiing coaches in NCAA history and a bona fide legend at CU.

The Buffs won a team title in Rokos’ first season in 1991 and have added seven more since (1995, 1998, 1999, 2006, 2011, 2013, 2015). His teams have won 14 Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association titles and have recorded 345 top-10 finishes (and counting) at the NCAA Championships. Buffs skiers have collected 146 first-team All-American honors under Rokos. Another 93 second-team honors have been earned by Rokos’ skiers.

Only Frank Potts (41 seasons with cross country and track) and Charles Vavra (32 seasons with gymnastics) have coached any sport longer at CU than Rokos. No doubt, it’s a day’s research at least to sort through all that history, and never mind the personal connections that led Rokos to officiating many Buffs’ nuptials. A few of those memories are certain to strike a few nerves when that unenviable task of cleaning out his office arrives, but until then Rokos has described his final weeks as more of a swirl of emotion than a recounting of specific highs and lows.

“It’s tough to sort of label any of them,” Rokos said. “I came to Colorado and I always felt like it was a running train. I managed to stay on the train and ride it for 30 years. Some people jump out along the way, but then eventually someone else jumps in. I don’t have any highlights, seriously. Because those 30 years, that was the highlight of my life. I left everything on the hill with what I was doing. I loved the school, and my colleagues, and everything about it.

“It sounds cliché, but it’s not. I mean it.”

Rokos’ final season actually offered a challenge unlike any in his previous three decades as his ski program had to almost invent ways to remain competitive at an elite level while dealing with COVID-19 restrictions during training. For Rokos, in an odd way this unique challenge helped bring his journey as a ski coach full circle.

“In many ways to experience this year where for a period of time we were restricted from training, using facilities,” Rokos said. “So big circle, I came back to what I did in Czech. Training somewhere in the back yard. Using equipment not issued by the school. We were scrambling to get weight lifting equipment and things like that. In that sense, I felt like a fish in the water. I came back to my fondest memory of my personal athletic life.”

Whoever steps in to fill Rokos’ shoes obviously will have a tremendous legacy to uphold. Given the rich tradition of the program, chances are someone with CU ties will be tasked with succeeding Rokos. (Former CU ski coach and athletic director Bill Marolt and Bruce Gamble, a former All-American with the Buffs with Marolt as his coach, are leading the search for Rokos’ replacement).

With Rokos finally jumping off the train, it won’t be an easy job.

“It’s obviously a legacy that’s going to stay at CU for a long time,” said CU assistant alpine coach Stefan Hughes, also a former All-American for the Buffs under Rokos. “I think that legacy goes really deep into the alumni and the ski world here in Colorado and at CU. He’s just really good at fostering relationships. I think that’s been one of his biggest keys to success. He’s always willing to be there to listen, to talk, and to support. He will always pick up the phone and be there for these athletes.

“That skill that he has of building and then maintaining relationships has really fostered an environment here of a family. It truly is. There’s some nostalgia coming out. We’ve always shared stories, but I feel like he’s been willing to share more this year. And I think he’s reflecting on everything that he’s done.”