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Director of Athletics emeritus recognized
for work with national organization
June 25, 2015
Vincent "Vin" Cullen, director of Athletics emeritus at the Community College of Rhode Island, recently was recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, or NACDA, as one of 12 recipients of its Golden Anniversary Award.
"It felt wonderful," Cullen said of the experience of receiving the honor at association's 50th anniversary convention in Orlando, Florida. It attracted 6,000 attendees, 1,700 of whom were on hand for the awards dinner. "I've been able to work with some very successful people. But also very down-to-earth people," he added.
In addition to the heavy gold and black ring Cullen received, NACDA presented him with a hardcover-bound book celebrating 25 athletic directors throughout history. The pages are full of recognizable names from sports history, among them University of Georgia Hall of Fame football coach Vince Dooley; noted basketball coach and athletic director Gary Cunningham; and football coach Jack Lengyel, whose career was chronicled in the film "We Are Marshall." With pride, Cullen pointed out his own page in the collection, where he's memorialized as the "Founding Father" of the National Alliance of Two Year College Athletics Administrators, known as NATYCAA.
Though Cullen has been a member of the NACDA since 1973, serving on many committees and being only the second community college administrator ever to serve as an officer, his work with NATYCAA was the main impetus for receiving the award, he said. It was Cullen who led the charge to consolidate leadership of the three associations representing athletics at the junior college level.
"Most organizations are national in scope, but junior colleges weren't," he explained. "California had its own entity, the Pacific Northwest, and then the rest of the country."
In 1989, Cullen moderated a meeting of junior college athletic directors from across the nation, and the collaboration was dubbed a success. "We could exchange ideas. We could talk to people from everywhere," he said. In 1999, NATYCAA began its official operation under the management of NACDA.
Cullen explained that forming this collective was crucial to advancing the interest of community college athletes, particularly as they moved forward in their careers, transferring on to four-year colleges under the purview of the NCAA. By banding together, the athletic directors of NATYCAA were able to effectively lobby, advise on legislation and advocate for their athletes. "It opened the dialogue between the NCAA and the community colleges," Cullen said. "That's been fairly successful, and it still exists."
Cullen, a lifelong athlete and educator, has made a career out of building things from the ground up: alliances, athletic programs, even athletic facilities. The field house at the Knight Campus bears his name; Cullen was instrumental in designing the multi-use space to house the growing athletics program on a shoestring budget. Originally a math professor at what was then Rhode Island Junior College, he remembered founding president Dr. William Flanagan asking him to start a basketball team, even as the college had no facilities to support one. In classic Vin Cullen fashion, he made it work.
"I played basketball in college at RIC, but I didn't have sufficient knowledge to coach a team. But they asked me to see if I could get it started," he said.
Cullen struck up a deal with RIC to use its courts at night, though it wasn't on a predictable schedule. Having no home base for the team, Cullen managed equipment storage in the trunk of his car. To hone his coaching acumen, he'd sit in on RIC's practices during the daytime, modeling RIJC's practices after what he'd seen that day.
After the basketball team's inaugural season was a success, he was asked to start a baseball team. He tapped faculty member Harold "Whitey" Fell to lead the program, and with that, the momentum was undeniable. Today, CCRI boasts a thriving athletic program consisting of 12 intercollegiate sports, an intramural program and a community recreation program.
In his 37 years as coach, he never missed a game, all the while continuing his teaching duties. Cullen compiled a 711-270 record, good for 10th all-time among junior college coaches for wins. At the time of his retirement, he was the all-time winningest college basketball coach in New England. His teams earned 10 regional championships, were nationally ranked during 16 seasons, and achieved the No. 1 ranking and a national runner-up finish in 1991. This success earned Cullen 28 coach of the year awards, one national coach of the year and two national athletic director of the year honors. He is a member of eight halls of fame.
"Coaches have a very positive influence on the young people," said Cullen of his motives for continuing to develop the athletic programs at CCRI, recalling student-athletes who came from broken homes and difficult environments only to overcome substantial personal challenges – in part due to the discipline and structure of the athletic programs. "You're a mentor to these athletes, a friendly concern and a kindly hand at all times."
Though Cullen officially retired from his post in 2002, not content to rest on his laurels, he still teaches mathematics at the college. In his office in the field house he helped shepherd to fruition, plaques and photographs crowd the walls and tabletops, a testament to all the memories made during the impressive career of this founding father.
"It's a humbling feeling," he said.
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