Dec. 26, 2013
by Brian Gunning
Whether it was serving his country in both the United States Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, helping his devoted wife of more than 60 years raise five children, guiding collegiate crew teams, or directing Army Athletics as the first civilian athletic director, Carl Ullrich has led a life of service.
Born in Ridgewood, N.J., Ullrich played football and lacrosse as a high school athlete before enlisting in the Navy during the latter stages of World War II. After his service, he enrolled at Cornell University and joined the Marine Corps Reserves. He continued his athletic participation as a member of the Big Red's crew team and helped the team win the 1949 national championship.
With the outbreak of the Korean War, Ullrich was called into active duty by the Marines in 1950. He served in the conflict as both a platoon leader and company commander, experiences that shaped his future leadership style.
"The Marine Corps was a great part of my life," Ullrich recalls. "I wouldn't trade that for anything. It was very much the same as coaching and the same as trying to be an administrator. You try to build a family atmosphere and build a situation where we are all working together. If an organization is going to be successful, there has to be a discipline there that everybody feels -- that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. Even under the worst conditions, that discipline has to come out and you have to behave and do the right thing no matter what."
While Ullrich's service in Korea laid the foundation for his professional development, the defining moment of his personal life occurred after he left the military. Upon his return to the United States, he began a teaching career at a private high school on Long Island. It was there that Ullrich met his wife, Becky, who was also a teacher at the school. The two have been inseparable ever since, raising three sons and two daughters.
"Becky is the best thing that ever happened to me," Ullrich says lovingly. "I had some real hesitations about leaving the Marine Corps because I loved it. It's a good thing I did get out because I probably wouldn't have met her. She was certainly the best thing that ever happened to me. She was an ideal coach's wife without any hesitation. I lucked out. I probably didn't deserve her. She was a great part of the experience every place I worked."
Those places included coaching stints at Cornell, Columbia University and Boston University, but it was his decision to take the varsity crew head coaching job at the U.S. Naval Academy that would begin the transition from coach to administrator. Working with new Navy Athletic Director Bo Coppedge, Ullrich was almost immediately put in charge of the recruiting office. He wore both hats for several years, but finally chose the administrative path.
After a total of 11 years in Annapolis, the Ullrichs packed their bags and headed for Kalamazoo, Mich., where Carl was hired as athletic director at Western Michigan University. Their time with the Broncos, while enjoyable, proved short. After just one year at WMU, Ullrich received word that there might be an opportunity at West Point. Up until that time, however, the athletic department was run by officers who would rotate every two to three years. Despite some initial resistance, an old friend advised Ullrich to pursue the job.
"I heard that Army was going to make a change, but I was told that there was no sense in expressing any interest because they weren't going to hire a civilian," Ullrich recalls. "Bo Coppedge called me after that and told me he wanted me to apply. I didn't have a resume. I was very happy where I was, but I did write a letter to the superintendent and said I would be interested. I interviewed with General (Andrew) Goodpaster, who was just a wonderful man. He called me at the office and said, `Carl, I want you to give me an answer right away, do you want to
be the Army athletic director?' Of course, I said, `Yes.'"
Despite what would ultimately be a 10-year, hall of fame career at Army, the first few seasons at West Point were challenging for the Ullrich family. While Carl made difficult decisions in order to transform the athletic department into a modern organization, Becky served as a sympathetic ear when he returned home from the office.
"I had to make a lot of changes that fall," Ullrich recalls. "I asked a lot of colonels to move on who had been in charge of various aspects of the program. I did have to make those changes because the athletic depart-ment was not as I visualized an athletic department had to be. The first couple or three years at West Point were the unhappiest years of my career. I was fortunate to be able to go home at night to a wonderful wife who would listen to all my troubles."
Part of Ullrich's vision for the athletic department revolved around generating a family atmosphere among the staff. Having been a student-athlete, coach and administrator, he brought a unique perspective on how to treat his staff members.
"I loved them just like my family, some of them like my kids," Ullrich says. "They were all great people. They were working so hard to get the job done. Having been a coach, I knew it wasn't easy so I tried to give them the best support I could. I wanted to let them know that I was there for them, and I was ready to do whatever I could to make their job easier. Sometimes you couldn't do what they asked you to do, but at least the effort was there. I hoped they felt that."
Judging from the recollections of former employees that served under his leadership, Ullrich's philosophy certainly did make the impact he was striving for.
"I think he led by example," Carol Bush, Army's current assistant athletic director for game operations who began her career in the athletic department's ticket office, says. "He treated everybody equally. He recognized us as professionals within our field. If anything came up, he came to you for advice. He always made sure you were included in whatever decision needed to be made. There was great communication among all the departments. You felt comfortable talking to him. Even if there was a problem, you felt comfortable telling him and you knew everything would be handled in the most professional way.
"He was everywhere. He knew every athlete by name. He knew every former athlete that he met by name. He attended so many sporting events that the rumor was he was cloned because he couldn't possibly be everywhere he was."
While there were several changes and improvements made during his 10 years at West Point, Ullrich may be most well known for one personnel decision that altered the course of Army Football. On the heels of five straight losing seasons, Ullrich determined he needed to make a coaching change after his third year on campus. His decision to hire Jim Young propelled the Black Knights to three bowl games and three Commander In Chief's Trophy titles in Young's eight seasons. The Army field boss was inducted into the National Football Foundation's College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
Despite the eventual success, the first season did not result in the turnaround Ullrich and Young were hoping for.
"I'll never forget that first year because if you look back you'll see that Jim (Young) was 2-9, and there were a lot of folks who wanted to fire both of us," Ullrich remembers. "He had been out of coaching for a year, and a lot of folks wondered why we would want to hire a guy like that. To me, that was one of his greatest strengths. Having gone through it myself, I know how much I missed it. Here was a guy who dropped out of coaching, realized he made a mistake and really missed it. How could you find a better guy than that? Of course, he came in and just worked so hard. I'll never forget the work ethic. I just knew that we were going to turn it around. Of course, the second year was a great year, and Jim was just the finest coach you could have there."
Ullrich decided to retire from West Point in 1990, but his career as an athletic administrator was far from over. He took over as the first full-time executive director of the newly formed Patriot League, a position he held until 1993. After deciding to give up the conference job, he and his wife retired to North Carolina. While helping run the swimming pool at nearby St. Andrew's College, Ullrich was asked to fill in as the school's athletic director. He held the position twice, serving from 1995 to 1997 and 2002 to 2004. He finally decided to retire for good and moved to his current home in Virginia Beach, Va., to be closer to family.
In 2007, Ullrich took his rightful place among the greats of Army Athletics with his induction into the Army Sports Hall of Fame. In yet another sign of respect, Ullrich, the first administrator to be included in the hall of fame, was chosen to speak on behalf of the induction class at the annual dinner.
"I knew there were still some graduates who were not necessarily supportive of me and of the time I spent there even though we did some good things," Ullrich says. "I remember e-mailing (former Army Athletic Director) Kevin Anderson and telling him that if there were any graduates who were on him about me going into the hall of fame, that he should change his mind. I had no idea about the committee selection or anything like that. I really was flabbergasted. I felt so honored. It's brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion."
With more than 20 years worth of perspective, Ullrich still believes his legacy at West Point comes down to one decision.
"Without any question, hiring Jim Young," Ullrich says of his top accomplishment at West Point. "There were a lot of things that were good, and I'll remember those folks forever as being a second family. The chance to turn the Army athletic program into a real athletic organization is what I remember the best."