SPRINGFIELD, MA - Athletics are in full swing at Western New England University with one notable exception.
Dr. Michael D. Theulen, the architect behind one of the most successful and respected Division III programs in the Northeast for nearly two decades, retired as Director of Athletics this past summer.
“Without Mike's enthusiasm, determination, and drive, the University's athletic program would never have excelled in such a remarkable way. We were so fortunate to have had Mike as our team leader since 1998. He transformed athletics at Western New England," stated University president Dr. Anthony S. Caprio in the school’s official release.
Theulen, 60, had a simple philosophy and that was “to provide a student-athlete experience second to none.” He committed the department and its student-athletes to comprehensive excellence in academics, athletics, leadership, and service – known as the ‘Western New England Way.’
With his easy-going personality and strong leadership skills, Theulen accomplished the difficult task of making everyone feel special and made the “Athletic Family” concept the central theme of his administration.
Theulen guided the University's athletic program through its transition from the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) into its current Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) affiliation.
Western New England appeared in 51 NCAA Division III Tournaments the past two decades and captured 63 conference crowns, including 30 in the GNAC and 22 in the CCC. Fifteen of the 19 varsity sports programs had teams and individuals participate in national championships.
It all started in Theulen’s first season when the women’s soccer team, under the direction of Ron Dias, posted a 20-2 record and captured the 1998 Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Division III Tournament.
Mike Theulen to Retire Following Nearly Two Decades as Director of Athletics at Western New England University https://t.co/wtYdcWCEYM— WNE Golden Bears (@WNE_GoldenBears) June 29, 2017
“The 1998 Women’s Soccer Team started the era of comprehensive excellence that our Athletic Family currently enjoys. All of our teams back then fed off their achievement, laying the foundation for future success. It’s no surprise that Ron Dias, his team, and some of those players are already in the Downes Athletic Hall of Fame”, said Theulen.
Theulen witnessed 42 student-athletes earn All-American and 18 Academic All-American recognition. Hundreds of others gained accolades for their accomplishments both on the playing fields and in the classroom.
Despite the busy demands of his job, Theulen was especially proud of his relationship with the students. He served on numerous committees, attended just about every home event, and was on a first name basis with many of the Golden Bears.
A native of Keene, NH, Theulen arrived at Western New England on June 1, 1998 following a Study of Athletics the previous fall commissioned by Caprio who was in his second year as school president. The Report called for sweeping changes in the attitude and culture of the athletics program, including the hiring of full-time coaches.
Theulen, along with associates Joe Sassi and Cyndi Costanzo, used the additional resources to start the process of making the Golden Bears a competitive program with the student-athlete as its focal point.
Theulen hired several energetic and talented individuals as head coaches and school spirit quickly soared to an all-time high.
The Downes Athletic Hall of Fame, Girls and Women in Sports Day, Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Captains Council, Faculty Fellow program, and Sports Recognition Banquets for student-athletes, among other initiatives, started during his tenure.
Theulen also was most responsible behind the improvement and expansion of Western New England's outdoor facilities - particularly, the construction of Golden Bear Stadium, George E. Trelease Memorial Baseball Park, Softball Park, and most recently, the Flynn Family Golden Bear Pavilion, which opened in 2015.
He organized the Golden Bear Club and annual Golf Tournament, which raised millions of dollars for athletics the past two decades, and served on numerous committees, including NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Golf.
Theulen also served two stints covering eight years as men's basketball coach leading his 2006-07 squad to a 22-8 record that tied as the second highest win total in program history and the ECAC Division III New England Tournament title, the program’s first-ever post-season crown.
Theulen earned his bachelor’s degree in Education from Keene State College (NH) in 1980. While there, he played basketball for his father Glenn who was the Owls coach. The younger Theulen received his master’s degree at the University of South Dakota in 1981 and Ph.D. in Physical Education from Springfield College in 1983.
Theulen spent 17 years at Springfield (1981-98) where he was the only individual to coach both the women and men’s basketball programs. In his final season, the Pride men set a school record with a 26-2 record and participated in the NCAA Division III Tournament. Theulen also served as a tenured associate professor of physical education.
As Western New England conducts a national search for Theulen’s successor, Joe Sassi is taking over as the Director of Athletics on a one-year appointment.
“It is hard to believe that I have had the privilege to be the Director of Athletics at Western New England University for nearly 20 years. It has been a GREAT ride but it is time for me to step aside," Theulen said.
He added: "In 1998, President Caprio took a chance on hiring an athletic director who had no direct prior experience. I cannot thank him enough for his support and belief in our vision that led to the creation of our Golden Bear Athletic Family.
It has been an honor to witness all of the amazing accomplishments of our Family over the years - both on and off the field of competition.
Working with such a talented and committed group of great coaches - past and present- has been a treat for me. They are invaluable assets for this University. Our administrative staffs - athletics, athletic training, sports information, and recreation - allow our University to really shine and serve as a measuring stick for other colleges to emulate.
I am really going to miss our outstanding student-athletes. They have been central to all that we do and have been involved from the very start in Captains Council in creating what is now our Athletic Family.
I am so very proud of all that they have done and continue to do - on the field, in the classroom, and in community service. What great role models they are. Always remember, “Once a Golden Bear, ALWAYS a Golden Bear!
I wish Joe Sassi, who has been with me from the very start of all of this, all the best in continuing to guide us during this Golden Era of Golden Bears Athletics.
In closing, I thank all of our friends who have supported us over the years. Countless faculty members, staff, trustees, alums, and parents who have made a measureable difference, it has been a thrill for me to get to know each one of you. Please know that we could never have accomplished all that we have done without you. Your generosity and passion served to inspire all of us.”
What others have to say:
Dorothy O’Neill ’18, Women’s Basketball Captain
“Coach T served as a great mentor to me and the rest of the student-athlete community. His support of all the different teams was essential to our success. I am thankful to have played under such a supportive and devout athletic director as a collegiate student-athlete.”
Bill Downes, Coach Emeritus, Men’s Golf Coach
“Coach Theulen was one of the greatest things to happen for the resurrection of Western New England athletics. All you have to do is look around, and it is easy to see his impact on the athletic facilities. His support and love for his coaches was immeasurable. You could always go to him, sit and interact, and leave with a good idea of what you needed to do. His father Glenn, the late great coach at Keene State, was one of my cherished friends. As Mike leaves his legacy here, he already knows that he is one of my most cherished friends. I love the man!”
Rick DiRuzza, Former Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students
“Mike was exactly what the Western New England athletic program needed. He is such a high energy individual that his excitement and enthusiasm spread from coaches to students to staff, faculty, trustees, alumni, and friends of the school. Under his leadership, the program quickly became first class and was soon competing for division titles and NCAA championship berths! However, varsity competition was only part of what he improved. Women’s sports, intramural and recreational programs also grew. Soon students flocked to athletic venues to take advantage of the opportunities for fun and interaction.”
Joe Sassi, Director of Athletics
“Mike and I arrived one month apart in the summer of 1998. It was an honor and privilege to work side by side with him and help lead and guide the Renaissance of Golden Bear Athletics. The department has seen unprecedented success over 19 years, and even though he is gone, his legacy is still making a positive impact on our current student-athletes.”
Lori Mayhew ’95, Softball Coach, Senior Women’s Administrator, and Downes Hall of Fame member
“I will always be grateful to Coach T for giving me my first full time head coaching position at Western New England. He has mentored me over the year and let me grow as a coach and let me run my program as I see fit.”