Aug. 26, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
– Like many who wear whistles for a living, Robert McCullum did not always plan to be a coach. If he’d paid a little closer attention to himself all the way back when he was a kid, however, he might’ve seen his path even before he made it to high school.
McCullum is bringing nearly three decades of college coaching to Georgia Tech, where he has joined the men’s basketball staff in replacing John O’Connor, who took the head coach position at Holy Family, a Division II school in Philadelphia.
Quite the raconteur, McCullum, 56, sounds every bit like a coach now . . . with stories to tell, and time-hewn perspectives to share.
Yet when the Birmingham native was at Birmingham Southern as an undergraduate, he first majored in urban development. The urge to coach, however, eventually led him into teaching fifth-eighth grade boys and girls after graduation, and he coached them in basketball, track and volleyball as well.
The writing was on the wall years earlier, back in Birmingham, when his coaching blood began boiling.
“When I was 12, 13 years old, in the summer I would organize kids who were three or four years younger than me . . . baseball was actually my first love,” said McCullum, previously a head coach at Western Michigan and South Florida. “I was just a marginal baseball player, but fundamentals were important to me even then.
“I grew up in a deprived area, and we actually lived in this alley with a dirt road versus paved roads just a few streets over. I would hit ground balls, fly balls to kids. We would play games against kids from the houses a street or two over. More often than not, we won. Some of the parents brought chairs from the kitchen [and watched].”
Many a summer, McCullum would drive hundreds of miles to attend and work at clinics and camps, and eventually he earned a Masters degree in Alabama Southern (living for a while in a dorm again) to better his chances of landing a college job. He paid dues with stops at South Alabama twice, Samford, Southern Illinois and Kansas State before joining Lon Kruger’s staff at Florida in 1990.
He also worked with Kruger at Illinois from 1996-2000 before becoming a head coach at Western and then USF. McCullum was coach of the Nigerian national team, going 5-1 in the All-Africa games in 2007, and has in recent years spent time at San Francisco and Central Florida as an assistant.
“Coaching is my calling; I was called to coach. I say that with all sincerity, just like a minister who is called to the ministry,” McCullum said. “Coaching is the most natural thing that I’ve ever done. If there is one word that describes me, what I am: a teacher.”
Spend enough time doing anything, and you’re bound to see some un-natural occurrences.
McCullum cites several mentors in his career, including Leonard Hamilton, Wade Houston, George Raveling, Clint Bryant and Perry Clark, but worries that the concept is dying.
“Personally, professionally, I don’t sense the caring for colleagues, the willingness to help other up-and-coming coaches as there was 20-25 years ago,” he said. “There used to be so many coaches who were willing to extend a helping hand, willing to take someone under their wings. It disappoints me to say that, but I would be less than honest to say otherwise.”
In McCullum’s opinion, coaches and players have fallen into the microwave — they want results now. Patience may be a bygone virtue not only in his profession, but in students whether they’re athletes or not, and in aspiring coaches.
“Sports just mirrors the views of American society, and we’re in an era of instant gratification,” he said. “Many up-and-coming coaches want their first job to be in the ACC or the Big Ten or something. And when I was teaching, kids looked forward to . . . maybe getting a hand-me-down car. Then, it became a used car, and now a new car is not enough. It’s got to be a luxury car.
“It’s mind-boggling to see the number of college students who have never had a job. That’s problematic not only for basketball, but our country. On the one hand we’re very fortunate that more and more parents who are educated and able to give their kids more than the previous generation could. Maybe some say, `I don’t want Johnny to have it hard like I had it, or have the kind of job I had.’ Why?
“I’m not saying everyone should do it the way I did it, but the thing that I have enjoyed the most is the journey; it’s the journey of life.”