HARRISONBURG, Va. – Dean Ehlers, the first appointed athletics director in James Madison’s illustrious athletics history, a pioneer in the university’s growth in the 1970s and 1980s and an ardent supporter for the blend of academics and athletics in a thriving sports program, passed away early Sunday afternoon, February 19, surrounded by family in Harrisonburg.
Dean Ehlers (1929-2017) filled the role of athletics director for what is now James Madison University for 22 years beginning in 1971 and built much of the foundation for what is today a thriving Division I intercollegiate athletics entity. When he began the role, the university (known as Madison College) had no football program, was not Division I, had few athletics facilities, had no conference affiliation, did not award scholarships and had not yet met Duke Dog.
Through the department’s formative years, Ehlers combined forces with the late women’s athletics pioneer Dr. Lee Morrison (1926-2015) to grow JMU Athletics into the model sports program in the region. With its roots in highly successful women’s athletics, JMU quickly became a player in men’s sports as well through the 1970s and into the 1980s.
Under Ehlers’ leadership, JMU Athletics moved to Division I in most sports in 1976-77 with football following suit in 1980. What followed was unparalleled success.
The JMU’s men’s basketball team won games in three straight NCAA Tournaments from 1981-83, and women’s basketball advanced to NCAA play five times from 1986-91, winning at least one tournament game each time, beating two No. 1 regional seeds and reaching the “Sweet 16” four times.
The Dukes’ 1983 baseball team was the first Virginia squad to play in the College World Series; JMU’s football team made two NCAA playoff appearances; the university won national championships in archery and was on the cusp of its field hockey title; it had nationally ranked programs in men’s soccer; and its swimming and diving programs dominated CAA competition in the 1990s. In addition to launching many of JMU’s men’s sports programs, he also started women’s soccer late in his tenure.
Ehlers coached JMU’s men’s basketball team to a 16-7 record in 1971-72 and coached men’s cross country during the 1972-74 seasons. He was Virginia College Athletic Association Coach of the Year in 1974 in cross country when the Dukes won the state title.
The team success was matched with individual accomplishments as JMU sent numerous athletes to the professional ranks, including the likes of Alan Mayer in soccer, Linton Townes in basketball, Billy Sample in baseball, Mark Carnevale in golf and the noteworthy trio of Gary Clark, Charles Haley and Scott Norwood in football, among many others in multiple sports.
In Ehlers’ early days, football and basketball both competed at Harrisonburg High School, the swimming program was in the basement of Keezell Hall and track practice occurred by running the sidewalks of the Quad. Fast forward and he oversaw the completion of Godwin Hall and later the construction of the JMU Convocation Center, Bridgeforth Stadium and Long Field/Mauck Stadium, among the noteworthy facility projects.
Ehlers served as president of the ECAC South Conference and carried that role into president of the Colonial Athletic Association as one of the league’s founding fathers upon its formation in 1985. His role in the league’s establishment was so instrumental that the conference still honors his legacy with the annual awarding of the Dean Ehlers Leadership Award in recognition of his career contributions to intercollegiate athletics. The annual award is bestowed upon male and female basketball student-athletes who “Embody the highest standards of leadership, integrity, and sportsmanship through their academic and athletic achievements.”
In addition to his CAA role, Ehlers also served on the ECAC executive committee, the ECAC baseball committee, the NCAA basketball rules committee, the NCAA Division I women’s basketball committee, the JMU Foundation board of directors and the administrative board of his church. He was president of the ECAC South, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, the Rockingham Heart Association and Greater Madison, Inc.
Ehlers was inducted into the JMU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997. As written in a university magazine feature upon his induction: “In his 22 years at JMU, Ehlers never lost his vision of what JMU sports could and should be – a program that commanded respect from its peers but always demanded that it give more to its student athletes than it took – that it gave them skills they could build on, an education they could be proud of and memories to savor.”
Ehlers was preceded in death by his wife, Joanne, and is survived by four children, numerous grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements will be handled by Kyger Funeral Home.
Comments from Former Colleagues
Jeff Bourne (JMU Director of Athletics since 1999)
“Dean has had a large impact on me professionally and was one of the main reasons I came here to JMU. He was one of those guys who was always revered, exuded class and did things the right way. Between Lee Morrison on the women’s side and Dean on the men’s side, they were a big influence on me. He was a strong mentor and gave me sage advice on the important things about being an athletic director and what it takes to succeed. I always revered him and respected him both as an athletic director and as a person. He was a person you enjoyed being with.”
Dr. Ronald Carrier (JMU President 1971-1998)
“Dean Ehlers arrived at Madison College to develop the athletic program. He did it so very well for both men and women’s programs. Dean was a great athletic director. He understood the athletes and helped them develop, both male and female athletes. The JMU program today is a result of the great leadership he provided the athletes and coaches. He was respected not only at JMU, but also in sports throughout the country. It was a joy to work with Coach Ehlers. He made the difference in sports at JMU and the nation.”
Jonathan Alger (Current JMU President)
“While I never had the opportunity to work with Dean Ehlers at Madison, I believe we are all direct beneficiaries of his vision and thoughtful leadership. When Dean took the helm at Madison College as our first athletics director, he could have taken the program in many directions — especially given that campus had recently gone co-ed, and the need to recruit male students was a priority. Yet Dean focused on advancing the excellent women’s programs already in place while building new ones for men. This balanced approach was based on Dean’s conviction that the student-athlete experience in all sports was priority number one. It is Dean Ehlers’ legacy that our programs today enjoy the same focus on excellence for all student-athletes.”
Dr. Linwood Rose (began working at JMU 1975, President 1998-2012)
“Dean Ehlers took a big risk when he uprooted his family in Memphis, Tenn. at Ron Carrier’s urging to move to Harrisonburg, Va. and Madison College. There was no way he could have known that by the time he would retire he would have shepherded the development of a comprehensive and successful athletic program admired by so many. It was through his leadership that new men’s athletic programs were added while an already highly competitive array of female intercollegiate sports were enhanced. Dean, a paragon of principled leadership, never accepted that winning meant sacrificing integrity.
Following retirement he remained the Dukes’ most loyal fan. I enjoyed watching this year’s national championship football team along with him on a number of occasions. Whenever I was with him I learned something new. I respected him, and I cherished his friendship. We are all fortunate that he was the face of JMU Athletics for so long.”
Shelia Moorman (JMU Women’s Basketball Coach 1982-1997)
“Dean Ehlers was solid gold to me. He was kind, a gentleman and I respected him so much I never wanted to disappoint him. He gave me my first opportunity as a head coach, and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. He was the consummate professional and a dear friend.”
Tom Yeager (CAA Commissioner 1985-2016)
“Dean was so universally respected by his peers. In an ultra-competitive industry, he never bent his principles, ever. That’s what made him so respected. One of the reasons why the conference named its signature award in his honor, if you look at the inscription on the Ehlers award, it lists leadership, integrity and sportsmanship, and that encapsulates Dean. He was such a quiet leader. There was an old commercial [for E.F. Hutton & Co.]that said ‘when he talks, everyone listens.’ Well, everyone listened when Dean spoke, because you knew it was based on sound principles, integrity and leadership.”
Challace McMillan (JMU Football Coach 1972-1984)
“He was the reason that I came to JMU. He was a great friend and a wonderful person. We had very strong ties not only in terms of work but in regards to family. We felt very much like a family and were very close to all of his children. In his position at JMU, he did an outstanding job. He certainly supported me and gave me all the help I needed when I was working under him as coach. He was a wonderful, wonderful administrator, well-organized and devoted to what he was doing, just an outstanding person. We stayed in contact even when I wasn’t coaching anymore. Recently, he and I got together almost once a week for lunch right up to my last visit with him Sunday morning.”
Lou Campanelli (JMU Men’s Basketball Coach 1972-1985)
“I was just talking with Dr. Carrier and he said, ‘Dean was the perfect guy I hired at the right time of our growth.’ He was a former coach. He had a background in basketball, so he was experienced. He was a great mentor to me. He always had something positive to say even after tough losses. He always came into the locker room, he and President Carrier, win or lose and would say something to the team. We were just building and growing and the kids really appreciated the support from the administration. One funny note on Dean, no matter where we were or who we played, he would walk into the locker room and slap me on the shoulder and say ‘way to go man.’ He didn’t go into long speeches or lead the cheers. He was very low key. That was his expression. Even the players remember that today. He was as honest as the day is long. He had all the coaches come in and take turns reading the rule book. He said, ‘If I have to sign a statement that everyone’s abiding by the NCAA rules, I’m going to make sure that everybody’s read it, and I’ll sign beneath verifying that you’ve read the NCAA rules.’ I feel quite fortunate that I could spend 13 years of my life with a guy who is going to support you. I told every coach since I left, ‘make sure you get to know Dean Ehlers.’”
Casey Carter (JMU Athletics employee since 1978)
“He was one of the most honorable, decent and incredibly compassionate people I‘ve ever known. I heard him first speak at a local high school and he was the graduation speaker. I was so impressed with him. A month later a job opened here and I applied, and he happened to be the person with whom I interviewed. He represented everything that was right with college athletics. He was great with the student-athletes. He, of course, was competitive and wanted to win, but he was great with people. He hired the right people and cared about them. It was amazing to have someone who wanted you to develop and grow professionally under a person who cared about you and wanted the best for you. I will miss him terribly. When I had challenging times, he always had that way of making you know that he was there and he would walk with you to a resolution. He was on the journey with you.”
Chuck Boone (Former Richmond AD, Yankee Conference Commissioner & CAA football administrator)
“Of all of the people that I worked with in my 37 or 38 years in athletics, there’s no one I respected more than Dean Ehlers. He was instrumental in us putting a nice conference together [in the CAA]. He was a great competitor but a nice person and someone you really enjoyed working with. Everyone had great respect for him as an administrator and as a coach. When he came to James Madison, he almost started from scratch in athletics, and he built a program that is respected by many individuals. He was just a class guy. We lost an outstanding person and administrator, and I lost a great, great friend.”
Eddie Webb (President, Virginia Sports Hall of Fame)
“Dean Ehlers was as fine a gentleman as there has ever been both in Virginia and in college sports across this nation. He always did things the right way and represented every organization that he was a part of in a first-class manner.”