Dean of the Dukes
| Dean Ehlers, JMU's first athletics director, was inducted into the university's
Sports Hall of Fame at the Greater Madison Banquet in April. It was a fitting
tribute to a man who, in his 22 years at JMU, led the university's
intercollegiate sports from a small college program with no league affiliations
and no scholarships to a nationally recognized Division I program.
Starting in 1971, Ehlers began to build on the already established women's program and literally built the men's program from the ground up. He did both on a whirlwind timetable with a quiet, focused leadership that rarely called attention to himself, always highlighted the positive and constantly demanded education of the athletes as his bottom line. His obvious success and his subtle style, in equal parts, have made him a giant in intercollegiate athletics and in the eyes of those who have worked and played with and for him.
If you ask him about his accomplishments, the now-retired Ehlers shrugs his shoulders and says, "We were blessed with good people and a supportive administration that provided the dollars." He tells you that he was in the right place at the right time; that JMU was poised and determined to grow, and that he was there just to help it along. But that's Ehlers' way - gracious, humble and firm. But just ask him about sports, those infancy years of JMU's program and before. Then Ehlers' eyes twinkle with what has guided him since he was a youngster - the pure joy of honest, sportsmanlike competition.
For Ehlers, sports has been a constant in his life. And the people who coached him as a youngster growing up in the Midwest did more than teach him the intricacies of a game - they were almost like fathers. "When I look back on my life, some of my greatest influences were my coaches," he says. "They created a family-like feeling." Those early experiences coupled with an athletic talent launched Ehlers into what would become a lifetime career in sports - as an athlete, coach and administrator.
Ehlers earned his bachelor's degree from Central Methodist College in Missouri, where he was a four-time first-team all-conference basketball choice and was inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame. He received his master's in education from Missouri. He played six seasons of professional baseball in the Brooklyn Dodgers' organization, played both baseball and basketball for the U.S. Army from 1951-53, and started his coaching career in 1956 when he joined Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) as head baseball and assistant basketball coach. He rose to the head basketball coaching position in 1962, and stayed at Memphis State until 1966 when he was named the first full-time athletics director of the Memphis city school system. Five years later, Ronald Carrier showed up at his office and announced, "I'm here to employ you as my athletics director at Madison College."
Those early days of college sports were a far cry from the mega-salaries and mega-egos that sometimes overshadow the world of big league intercollegiate athletics today. "It's become a business," Ehlers says. Regret colors his words. "That seems to be the way the system is." The single coach has been replaced by a staff of many, and recruiting has a competitiveness almost equal to the game itself. "A lot of places don't even have walk-ons," Ehlers says. "The game is better than it's ever been. But what's been the price?" While Ehlers would never admit he'd like to return to the past, his recollections of the "good old days" speak longingly of days of hustle, improvisation, minuscule budgets and athletes who played simply for the fun of it.
"When I came to Memphis State in 1956 as the assistant basketball coach, I taught four classes, was in charge of the bookstore for athletes and had no secretary," Ehlers says. "That year our basketball team finished second in the nation."
Fifteen years later, Ehlers was at JMU, and the situation was similar. No Convocation Center, no Godwin Hall, no stadium and few playing fields. The pool was in the basement of Keezell, the track was the sidewalks that lined the Quad, and the men's basketball team played its games in Harrisonburg High School's gym. The entire sports budget ran a whopping $44,000.
Recruiting was a far simpler animal to tame. In fact, Ehlers says, "We literally recruited that first football team out of the registration lines." Tim Meyers, a member of Ehlers' first basketball team, recalls that Ehlers would often hand him a $5 bill with instructions to take a potential recruit out for dinner "and expect a receipt and change."
JMU's sports had no ticket office; Ehlers was it. Nights often found him at home addressing and stuffing envelopes with tickets to be dropped in the mail on the way to work the next morning. A.D. duties became a family affair, as his wife, Joanne, hosted the hospitality room following men's basketball games, armed with pleasant conversation and a box of doughnuts Ehlers had picked up just before the game. Then, there were no "just coaches" or "just athletics directors." "All of us did something else," Ehlers recalls. That first year, Ehlers doubled as men's head basketball coach in addition to teaching.
But those days didn't last long. In a few short years, JMU's intercollegiate sports program climbed the ladder from a small college program to a Division I power. It was a climb that amazed most onlookers and many insiders - including himself, Ehlers says - and began introducing JMU athletes into the pro ranks: Alan Mayer in soccer, Linton Townes in basketball, Billy Sample in baseball, Mark Carnevale in golf, and Gary Clark, Charles Haley and Scott Norwood in football.
The Ehlerses celebrate their toghtherness. After his heart attack and her bout with breast cancer a year ago, Dean and Joanne concentraed on helping each other recover. Their priorities today are their four children and 10 grandchildren.
Through those dizzying years, Ehlers faced the demands of building a winning program, yet never lost sight of JMU's main purpose - to educate students. "Dean had always been an educator and a coach," says Tom Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association. Sure, he had pressure to win and pressure to grow and mushrooming budgets to manage. "But through all those pressures, Dean's focus was always on the student. He never compromised that," Yeager says.
He and Leotus Morrison, head of JMU's women's intercollegiate sports program, zeroed in on the idea that athletics should provide "life skills long before [the idea] was ever popular," says Betty Jaynes, CEO of the Women's Basketball Coaching Association and former head coach of women's basketball at JMU. Ehlers and Morrison were adamant, above all, that student athletes earn a diploma. "That's the tempo he set forward," says Meyers.
In addition to educating students, Ehlers needed to do a bit of personal education when it came to women's sports. "I came from the old school that believed 'ladies' should be on the sidelines," Ehlers admits with a sheepish smile. That philosophy was mainstream in the '50s and '60s. But teamed with Morrison, Ehlers became sold on women's intercollegiate athletics, and, in the process, became one of its most ardent supporters. He calls his six-year service on the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee his most rewarding intercollegiate athletics committee assignment and "a wonderful experience to represent women's basketball."
Yet, Ehlers' influence in intercollegiate sports extended far beyond that one committee. A "founding father of the CAA," he served as its president as well as head of its predecessor, the Eastern College Athletic Conference, South. He also was president of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and served on the ECAC executive committee and baseball committee and the NCAA basketball rules committee, "which put the dunk back in the game." He was JMU's men's cross country coach from 1972-74, and in his final year, he was named the Virginia College Athletic Association's Coach of the Year.
His quiet leadership, integrity and dependability won him the respect of his peers. "He was viewed as the saint in the business," the CAA's Yeager recalls. "No one was held in higher regard." Vanderbilt associate athletics director June Stewart echoes those sentiments. "Dean had so much credibility that he lent credibility to anything he was associated with." So illustrates the CAA's Dean Ehlers Leadership Award, which recognizes student basketball athletes who "embody the highest standards of leadership, integrity and sportsmanship through their academic and athletic achievements."
In his 22 years at JMU, Ehlers never lost his vision of what JMU sports could and should be - a program that commanded respect from its peers but always demanded that it give more to its student athletes than it took - that it gave them skills they could build on, an education they could be proud of and memories to savor.
Today, after a few part-time years with the JMU Foundation, Ehlers is retired, and his focus is squarely on his family: wife, Joanne, and the lives of their four children. But a part of his heart will always be with a fifth child - JMU athletics, which he raised from childhood to maturity and success. Ehlers still savors its victories, follows new trends and developments with interest and always feels the bond. "Selfishly, that's my baby," Ehlers says. "I watched it grow up to adulthood."
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