Departing Allegheny President Jim Mullen reflects on special affinity for athletics

As Allegheny College prepares for the inauguration of President-elect Hilary Link on July 1, the athletics and fitness department must say goodbye to one of its biggest supporters: President Jim Mullen.

Director of Athletics and Recreation Bill Ross said Mullen is known for regularly attending athletic events, saying that he has always been supportive in both victory and defeat.

“There’s just that sense that I think everyone who saw him and his presence there knew, and they wanted to perform as well as they possibly could for him,” Ross said. “I think that had a huge impact on our athletic programs over the years knowing that he was one of the biggest supporters that we had.”

Mullen, who described his “very special affinity for athletics,” talked about how student-athletes reflect what is good about Allegheny College.

“I think our student-athletes reflect the increased diversity of our campus; I think that they represent the increased geographic reach of our college,” Mullen said. “I think our students who are athletes reflect the wider student body in many ways in terms of who they are.”

Assistant Athletic Director for Communications and Media Relations Sean King, who started working at Allegheny on Nov. 26 2018, discussed Mullen’s involvement during his time here. King said he frequently spots Mullen in the David V. Wise Center with a smile on his face and an outstretched hand. He said it has been an honor to get to know him.

“President Mullen has proven, in his time at Allegheny College, to be a great leader, not just for athletics,” King said. “He’s been a valued supporter of the athletic department but just a tremendous leader on the campus as a whole and that has carried over into athletics.”

During Mullen’s presidency, women’s field hockey and men’s lacrosse have been added to the varsity sports roster and will take the field next year for the first time in Allegheny history. The implementation of these teams has raised the number of varsity sports to 21.

“It’s not as easy as just hiring two coaches and adding sports,” Ross said. “Our facilities need some improving, some upgrades in order to accommodate those extra students, and thus this is what it’s going to take, and, to the tune of $2 million, we get these beautiful facilities and these upgrades. So that’s a huge contribution.”

Ross said Mullen has been very good at listening to the obstacles that the athletic administration has faced during his tenure.

“(The addition of the new teams) puts us in a very good, competitive light within the conference,” Ross said. “We were one of the few schools in the conference that did not have those two sports.”

Ross said the addition of the new sports will put the college in the running for the Dennis M. Collins All-Sports Trophy, which involves the combination of the scores of each team in a college that participate in the North Coast Atlantic Conference. Ross pointed out the other coaches’ excitement about the new teams, which finally puts the college in contention for the trophy.

Before the start of a men’s basketball game against the Wabash Little Giants, on Feb. 1, it was announced that the performance arena in the Wise Center was renamed the James H. Mullen Jr. Arena. Mullen was moved by the surprise, describing the wonderful evenings and afternoons spent there during his Allegheny tenure.

“I think what made it most powerful for me was to look up into the stands and see all those students there, and it was very moving for me because I love our students,” Mullen said. “Our students inspire me every day, and to see you all gather there meant more to me than I could ever say, and of course, to share the night with Mari and Frankie and James made it just overwhelming.”

The Gators beat the team ranked 14 in the nation by a 12 point margin. The team went on to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

“The energy in that gym was something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” Mullen said.

Ross, who fully supported the renaming of the Wise Center once the idea was brought to his attention, believed it was a perfect fit. Marking Mullen’s famous spot in the arena near the locker rooms, where Ross recalled him standing during his 11-year tenure as president, was a special treat for Ross.

“That was one of the things that struck me the most about him was that I would see him standing in that spot, waiting for the teams to come off the floor, to give them a high five, to give them a hug, whether it’s congratulatory or it’s to say, ‘we’ll get them next time,’ he was there,” Ross said.

Ross discussed how the renaming of the gym was fitting because that’s where Mullen has been most visible.

“What’s so cool about it is it’s not only the James H. Mullen Arena, but lovingly called Jim’s Gym,” Ross said. “That is awesome. It’s a great nickname to have for a gymnasium.”

Mullen recalled hundreds of memories about the athletics program. Watching Arnold Palmer interact with the golf team when he received an honorary degree, seeing the football program reestablishing itself and admiring the cross country team as one of  the best in the country, are a few of the countless points of pride Mullen elaborated on.

“I could go (through) every sport and have a moment of pride,” Mullen said. “That’s the magic of Division III for me, that you have young people who are not only passionate about athletics, but they’re passionate about their studies.”

Mullen believes Division III, at its best, is young people who are good students, but compete “in a way that reflects the excellence of the institution.” He hopes that after his departure that the college continues recruiting coaches committed to the best of Division III and students who are, first and foremost, students.

Mullen stated that both he and his wife Mari will continue to attend athletic events when possible following his retirement.

“We look forward to returning to Allegheny often,” Mullen said. “When we do, we will be attending plays, and we will be attending college events, and certainly within there, given our love of athletics and sports, we will be attending games.”

Ross shared similar feelings, hoping Mullen will visit and attend college events often.

“I hope they make it back to Meadville often enough to attend the games,” Ross said. “I’m sure we’ll see him at some of the road games, that’s for sure.”

Although he might not be able to make every game in the future, Mullen emphasized his faith in his successor, Link.

“She has a wonderful understanding of what a residential liberal arts community is about and I know someone who recognizes and applauds the role that athletics plays in our residential campus,” Mullen said. “You’re gonna see Dr. Link at games, you’re going to see her bringing the same kind of passion to all facets of Allegheny life that I hope I brought.”

Ross anticipates meeting the new president by showing her the athletic facility enhancement plan, which he described to be a master plan on what the athletics staff wishes to accomplish with the athletic facilities.

“We’ll be able to have the opportunity to sit down and look at where we are, where we want to go, and pick her brain on that and kind of what she wants to do because ultimately it’s up to her,” Ross said. “I think the goal right now is, just once she gets in here, to have those opportunities to take a look at our road map.”

As Mullen concludes his final semester as president of the college, he plans to remain fully supportive of the athletics programs into his retirement.

“Thank you to our student-athletes for the joy that they have given me,” Mullen said. “I’ve always been proud of them in victory or in defeat because of who they are. You’re remarkable young people and I’m always honored to be with you at games or anywhere else on our campus.”