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Character counts

Sport psychology center's holistic approach mirrors coach's philosophy
By Martha Bell Graham

First JMU football head coach Challace McMillin talks to a 1980s-era Dukes team. The revered coach has been honored with two JMU academic centers named for him.

First JMU football head coach Challace McMillin talks to a 1980s-era Dukes team. The revered coach has been honored with two JMU academic centers named for him.

At every Madison Homecoming or athletics event, alumni — especially former football players — seek out a soft-spoken gentleman they once called "coach."

He is Challace McMillin, JMU's first football coach, mentor to a generation of student-athletes and a perpetual draw for former students, many of whom became coaches themselves. After nearly 40 years at JMU, the impact of the retired coach and professor still reverberates — and will continue to do so for many years to come. Last fall JMU's Center for Sport Psychology was officially named for the former coach.

McMillin's former player, Joe Showker ('79), and his wife, Debbie ('78), pledged $500,000 to establish the center, earning the right to name it the Challace McMillin Center for Sport Psychology. Another alumnus, sport psychologist Roddy ('76, '77M), and Jeanne Kibler ('75), established the Kibler Professorship for Sport Psychology.

The center supports student-athletes, coaches and parents in achieving success in sports and in life. It is the second honor for JMU's first football coach. The Challace McMillin Academic Performance Center is also named for the former coach and professor emeritus.

Holistic approach

The sport psychology center's holistic approach to sport mirrors the philosophy McMillin modeled as a coach, mentor and professor. In a three-pronged approach that distinguishes it from other sport psychology centers, the McMillin center first supports athletes in their quest for personal and performance excellence. The center also offers students studying in related academic fields such as psychology and kinesiology an opportunity for hands-on, clinical experiences in sport psychology. The center's director Robert Harmison explains, "With the center's commitment to identify and implement best practices, students are able to participate in and design research studies related to the effectiveness and ability of the center's psychoeducational programs to positively impact the athletics community."

But it is the center's third prong — reaching beyond campus — that sets it apart. Through clinics for parents, coaches and athletes, and through research and outreach, the center will have a positive impact on hundreds of young lives. "Both undergraduate and graduate students will have the opportunity to gain valuable experience developing and delivering outreach programming that will positively impact the sport experience of athletes of all ages in the region," Harmison says.

Innovative outreach programming

Because not all coaches, and certainly few parents, are trained in coaching, outreach is important and innovative. "Participation in competitive sports builds character, and athletes learn valuable life skills like discipline, teamwork, working toward goals, leadership and social skills," Harmison adds. "However, without good sports parenting and coaching, participation that overemphasizes winning, perfect performance and playing despite pain can result in unhealthy behaviors."

The center's mission will spread McMillin's passion. "I have always had a strong belief that the mental aspect of sports is extremely important and that it has to be approached the same way you work on the body," McMillin says.

McMillin with NFL All-Pros Charles Haley ('87) and Gary Clark ('85)

McMillin with NFL All-Pros Charles Haley ('87) and Gary Clark ('85)

McMillin came to JMU in 1971 as director of housing and as track and field coach — with the understanding that he would start a football program. "It was very exciting to me. Very few people have an opportunity to start a football program at the collegiate level," McMillin says.

McMillin's success is legendary. Starting from scratch, the coach built a winning program that produced, among others, the only NFL player to earn five Super Bowl rings, Charles Haley ('87).

"I always believed it was important to have a coaching philosophy," McMillin says. "I wrote it out; I gave it to the players. We talked about it."

First place goes to education

McMillin's philosophy is simple. Number one was getting an education and developing relationships. Football came second. "Going to class, being organized, being on time. These were extremely important me," the coach says. McMilllin required each player to set short- and long-term goals, and then to go about accomplishing them methodically. "My players had to develop a master organization calendar — in detail. They had to write it out and turn it in every semester to their position coaches," he explains. Today's student-athletes have academic coaches, but back then the coaching staff did it all.

McMillin taught his players to plan for success. As a result, more than 90 percent of his players graduated. "I'm very proud of that," he says. The discipline that McMillin modeled and taught his players is a reflection of his coaching philosophy and his own life — where fundamental personal discipline promotes excellence. Thanks to McMillin's philosophy and high standards, JMU athletics programs like Day With the Dukes — where student-athletes reach out to the community — flourish.

After McMillin stepped down as head football coach in 1984, he earned his doctorate in sport psychology from the University of Virginia. With his new credentials, he continued to have a significant impact on Madison as a professor of kinesiology.

Though retired, McMillin continues to practice what he believes through his association with the center as a mental training coach for current student-athletes.