By Bob Beretta
As he walked through the corridors beneath West Point’s Michie Stadium, the Academy’s new athletic director couldn’t believe his eyes. Drab gray paint on the walls ... non-distinctive signage ... very little tie between the fabled college football program so firmly embroidered into the fabric of the sport, and the stadium that housed so much of its storied success.
And it wasn’t just football that lacked a representative material legacy to behold, a place where fans could celebrate Army’s vast athletic achievements, a suitable shrine to one of the nation’s most respected athletic programs. None of Army’s sea of sporting accomplishments were heralded in any significant manner in any of the athletic facilities.
It was the summer of 1980 and Carl Ullrich had just accepted his position as director of athletics at the United States Military Academy, signed on to become the first civilian athletic director in West Point’s proud history. He was an opened-minded thinker without boundaries, a man with a vision as clear as the view off Trophy Point for the manner in which a Division I athletic program should be run.
Now, as he settled into his position during the first few months on the job, he was shocked to witness the glaring absence of an Army Sports Hall of Fame. No place where the legends of Blaik, Blanchard and Davis could leap to life, no place that allowed their images to run as free as one of the “Touchdown Twins’” patented sweeps off right end.
“I was amazed when I got here that there wasn’t a hall of fame already established,” Ullrich recalls. “That’s one thing that I wanted very much to do. But I was advised against starting one. Folks that had been at the Academy for quite a while told me that there was too much politics involved in starting one.”
So Ullrich did the next best thing. He did what he could to honor the most deserving athletes, began to pave the path that would eventually lead straight through the shiny, star-studded Kenna Hall of Army Sports, a place that suitably celebrates the countless Army triumphs on those fields of friendly strife. And while it couldn’t have been farther from his mind, Ullrich began his own long journey toward Army’s forever.
First, he developed the Army “A” Room, a cozy space behind Michie’s East Stands that served as a “mini” museum for the Black Knights’ history-soaked football program. Then he gained financing that allowed for the recognition of the Army Athletic Association Award winners an honor bestowed upon the top male and female athletes of each West Point graduating class inside Holleder Center.
“Those things were fairly well received,” remembers Ullrich. “But I really wanted to do so much more to honor our past.”
Today, Ullrich is signature part of that past, a visionary whose untethered vision led to the renaissance of Army’s football program, and the athletic program as a whole, during his decade-long tenure in charge of the Black Knights’ athletic program. For those reasons, he becomes the first administrator inducted into the Army Sports Hall of Fame, a pride-brimming member of the seven-person Class of 2007.
Joined by the likes of lacrosse standout Tom Cafaro (USMA 71), dual-sport dynamo Alma Cobb (USMA 84), baseball star Barry DeBolt (USMA 66), three-sport wizard Arnold Galiffa (USMA 50), tennis and squash specialist Charlie Oliver (USMA 49), and legendary three-sport All-American “Lighthorse” Harry Wilson (USMA 28), Ullrich stands as part of the fourth group to be inducted into the very hall of which he once dreamt. He just never anticipated he’d be a part of it, never thought he’d have his own seat in the room some day.
“The letter from (Army) Athletic Director Kevin Anderson telling me that I had been elected to the Army Sports Hall of Fame was an even bigger shock than getting the phone call offering me the job as West Point’s athletic director,” Ullrich says in an uneven voice thick with emotion. “It was really a great shock and very humbling feeling. At the same time, I am very appreciative of the honor and of the things we accomplished during my 10 years.
“There is a very high level of pride. This is a reflection on the team we built during my time as athletic director, recognizing and thinking back on all those wonderful people who ordinarily are not thought of. They are the reason the program was successful. They are the reason I was thought of to be inducted. I was fortunate enough to hire some very good people and perhaps motivate others to have a quality team effort.”
Carl Ullrich often dreamed of building a place where Army’s proud athletic past could spring to life, a place where the feats of field generals and fullbacks could transcend generations. He just never imagined he’d be right there with them.
Today, that groundbreaking administrator with all those wonderful ideas takes his rightful place alongside national champions and Heisman Trophy winners, stands shoulder to shoulder with Blanchard, Davis and the rest of Army’s sports heroes deep into Army’s forever.
It’s one possibility he never pictured.
Bob Beretta is the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Athletic Communications at West Point.