It is going to be very strange to look at the bench on the side of the Canfield boys basketball team next season and not see head coach John Cullen roaming back and forth.
After 28 years in charge in Canfield, Cullen has decided to leave the program to accept the position of director of women’s basketball operations at Youngstown State. He will begin his new endeavor on July 1. Leaving Canfield may be one of the hardest things Cullen has done in his life, but opportunity knocked at the coach’s front door, and at age 59, he figured the time was right for a change.
“I was given this opportunity now and may never get an opportunity like this again,” said Cullen over the phone. “If I would have passed this up who knows at my age if I would have gotten another chance.”
Although Cullen was not yet able to be specific in what his new job will entail he knew he was going to have tons of responsibility. NCAA rules prohibit him from doing any actual hands on coaching of the players in his first season, but Cullen will be able to help new YSU head coach Bob Boldon and his staff in game preparation, strategy, game planning in huddles during the game and film collection. Cullen will not be able to recruit high school players this season, but he will be able to do on campus recruiting. He will also act as a liaison with local coaching staffs and the community. The former high school coaching legend will also get to travel with the team and be on the bench during all YSU games. That is one aspect of his new job that has this ex-Cardinal crowing.
“I am not tired of coaching high school,” Cullen said, “but this is a new challenge. I always wanted a chance to get into the NCAA tournament. How many high school coaches get this chance?”
Coach Cullen’s chance may have come sooner if he wasn’t a teacher at Canfield. Once he retired from the classroom a couple of years ago, Cullen became more cognizant that new opportunities may be on the horizon. While this jump to the Horizon League is exciting for the coach, it does not mean that he still doesn’t have strong feelings for his friends at Canfield.
“It kills me to leave Canfield,” Cullen said somberly. “I love the kids, the other coaches and the community. The people of Canfield have been so nice to let me raise their kids all these years. All the programs (at Canfield) got behind each other. Hopefully I can bring some of that same atmosphere to YSU and help get things turned around.”
Turning around the women’s program in Penguinville may be easier said than done. The team is 3-57 over the past two seasons and is starting fresh with coach Boldon. The Lady Penguins only have 13 girls on scholarship so that will also pose a challenge to the new staff. That is why the rookie YSU head coach is going to lean of Cullen’s 37 total years of assistant/head coaching experience to build a winner as quickly as possible. With an overall record of 472-228 in 32 years as a varsity headman, including multiple conference, sectional and district championships, it seems like Cullen has the intangibles needed to make things better.
“We are ecstatic to have coach Cullen join our staff,” said coach Boldon in a press release. “He brings an incredible amount of basketball knowledge to our team. His connection to the local community will also be invaluable in helping restore the winning tradition of Youngstown State women’s basketball.”
Restoring that tradition may come quicker if the fine basketball players that litter the rosters of local high schools stay in town instead of bolting for other colleges. Although Cullen can’t help with that this recruiting season, he looks forward to making that one of his goals in the future.
“We can’t let our athletes leave town,” Cullen insisted. “There weren’t enough games (last year) where (the Lady Penguins) were competitive and these local girls can help that. For now we have to take what we have and make it better. We can’t give them unrealistic expectations.”
One thing Cullen does expect is the rebirth of YSU mania from the community.
“This is such a neat area because of the passion and support of our local teams,” he said. “It has not been quite as intense at YSU the last couple of years. We need to give them something to cheer for.”
There will be one person, win or lose, that will be supporting the Lady Penguins from now on and that is Cullen’s wife Roseann who has been by his side throughout his tenure at Canfield and plans to be right there at Beeghly Center too.
“My wife is crushed because she loved high school basketball,” Cullen said respectfully. “She is happy for me though because she knew I wanted to do this so much. She allows me to commit to things then she commits to it her own way. She has a passion for sports and that is why she’ll become the biggest (YSU) fan. She’ll be there yelling in the stands.”
As far as Canfield is concerned, Athletic Director Greg Cooper admitted that he is happy for Cullen, but also knows there will be a huge void to fill.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Cooper said from his school office. “Everyone at Canfield wishes him the best of luck. He is a wonderful coach and a phenomenal teacher. He was so helpful here at Canfield. We hate to see him go.”
Thankfully for Cooper, he had a sense that this day was coming since Cullen had hinted for a while that he may be in line for the college position. That gave the Canfield A.D. time to gather some names he would like to put on a search committee to find Cullen’s replacement. Although Cooper would like a new hire in place soon, he is not going to rush into things just for time sake.
“We look to move promptly,” explained Cooper, “but it’s too early to put a timetable on it. We are going to follow standard procedure of interviewing in house then open up the interviews to outside candidates. Then we will hire the best candidate. Coach (Cullen) will still be around during the summer to help with the process.”
Come this fall, however, Cullen will no longer be there to help out the Cardinals. The coach’s career path now takes him to the college ranks to try and help resurrect a once proud franchise. If John Cullen can leave as great a legacy at YSU that he did with Canfield boys basketball, then the future of the Lady Penguins program is truly limitless.