Bob Rotanz. Photo by Doug Doughty.
Bob Rotanz. Photo by Doug Doughty.

In the fifth decade after the most notable accomplishment of his athletic career, Salem restaurateur Bob Rotanz continues to enjoy the rewards.

Rotanz, who recently was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, was the guest speaker Monday night at the monthly meeting of the Roanoke Valley Sports Club.

For those who were unfamiliar with his playing career going back to the 1970s, it was Rotanz who scored the winning goal in Roanoke’s 14-13 victory at Hobart in what was the Division II championship game in 1978.

Goals are a rarity for defensemen and, for Rotanz, the game-winner was only his second goal of the season.

That Roanoke team finished 12-2, still the fewest losses in a season in program history.

The Roanoke College championship team. Rotanz is in front with the trophy. Courtesy of Rotanz.
The Roanoke College championship team. Rotanz is in front with the trophy. Courtesy of Rotanz.

“I’m still getting over the fact that I’ve been inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame,” Rotanz said Monday night. “It’s funny because, five years ago, Scott Allison asked me if I would like to play in a golf tournament to support the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.”

Allison, a former Roanoke lacrosse captain, is the Roanoke College director of athletics and former soccer coach. 

“I said, ‘Sure,’ so we drove up to Staunton, had a boxed lunch, played a round of golf and there was a barbecue where I sat next to Joe Jacoby,” said Rotanz, referring to retired Washington Redskins offensive lineman Joe Jacoby. “He was a giant.

“Then I saw Chris Warren from Ferrum, a guy who played for the Seattle Seahawks, and [former UVa star] Shawn Moore. It was pretty cool. I met the Hall of Fame director, Will Driscoll, and he said, ‘Every time I go [to the Roanoke Valley], I go to Mac and Bob’s.’ And I told him, ‘Here’s my card.'”

For those unfamiliar with Rotanz’ lacrosse history, they might be aware of Mac and Bob’s restaurant, where Rotanz is one of the owners, across from the Roanoke campus.

“In December, I got a phone call from the 757-area code and I picked it up,” Rotanz said. “I thought [Driscoll] might want me to help support the program and he told me, ‘I want to congratulate you on being selected for the 50th year of the hall of fame.’

“I can be pretty emotional, so, when I got home, I wondered if something might have gone wrong and my wife looked at me and said, ‘It’s good. It’s good.’ I was in shock and it was even more shock when I found out who else was going in.

“I think the fact that I played lacrosse, a minor sport in southwest Virginia at a small Division III school, made me check a lot of boxes. On top of that, going in at my age was particularly gratifying, having my adult children there [at the induction], my grandchildren, my two brothers from Florida and New York as well as teammates.

“To be talking in front of 300 people, I was a nervous wreck.”

Rotanz shared a little more of his history Monday night at the Roanoke Valley Sports Club.

He had played three sports in high school and was a baseball player in the eighth grade. 

“After the first week of practice, I knew where I stood,” he said Monday. “I batted ninth and I played right field. If I hit a foul ball, I was thrilled if my bat hit the ball. So, I went to my coach and asked, ‘Would it be OK if I jumped ship and played lacrosse?’

“I went over to the lacrosse field and the guys with the big long sticks didn’t look super athletic. I went to a local sporting goods store before Dick’s Sporting Goods [was widespread] and when I began to play, I used a wooden stick made by the Iroquois Indians.

“I was fortunate to play in what is still one of the best [high school] programs in the country. I make it analogous to the Salem football history. Our coach back then is in the national lacrosse hall of fame. They won 10 straight state championships.”

He is a graduate of Ward Melville in Stony Brook, N.Y.

Rotanz was fortunate to run into several promising players who were headed to Roanoke College, as was his future fellow defenseman, the late John Pirro. Rotanz’ dad was a detective who suffered a massive heart attack after a gun battle at a liquor store in 1968.

His mother earned a nursing degree after her husband’s death and while raising three sons.

“I wanted to go to a small school,” Rotanz said during his speech Monday. “I had letters from Maryland and Johns Hopkins but I called coach [Paul] Griffin at Roanoke and knew about these players that were going there.

“I drove down to Salem on a beautiful day and decided, ‘This is it.’ It was the best thing I ever did. My buddy, John Pirro, called me when I was in high school and said, ‘Hey, Bob, you come down here and we’ll have a hell of a team.’ It was the best thing I ever did.”

Pirro was a three-time first-team Division III All-American who was a three-time Old Dominion Athletic Conference coach of the year at Roanoke before he succumbed to Huntington’s disease in 2013. He was named to the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2022.

The Maroons’ coach, Paul Griffin, was 25 years old when he took over as Roanoke’s head coach in 1972 and he went on to serve as athletic director at South Florida from 1986-2002. 

“He always called me ‘Robert,’ ” Rotanz said. “He said to me, ‘Robert, if you come here [to Roanoke] with the other guys I have coming, we could win a national championship.’ And he said, ‘We’re a small school but we’re a good small school.”

Before beating Hobart in 1978, Roanoke had lost to Hobart in the 1977 semifinals.

“Our food director was on the plane with us [in ’78] and he got all the champagne from Hobart because they didn’t use it,” Rotanz said this week. “He was concerned about it and told me, ‘Don’t say anything [to the media]. Just say yes or no.’ “

At the end of the year, the Baltimore Sun had a poll of the top teams in college lacrosse and Roanoke was ranked fifth behind Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Navy. 

“I have that article,” Rotanz said. “It’s pretty cool. So, Hobart won two national championships before we played them and they won 13 in a row afterwards.”

Rotanz compares Griffin to Herb Brooks of Miracle on Ice fame. 

“To this day, [Griffin] is still like a father figure,” Rotanz said. “I still talk to him. He calls me Robert.”

At this point, Hall of Famer will do. 

Doug Doughty has been writing for more than 50 years starting as a high school student in Washington,...