C.J. Woollum thought that the small college in Newport News might be a decent fit. He had a good vibe about the place from a two-year stint as an assistant coach several years earlier.
"I wouldn't have imagined that I'd stay this long," Woollum said Monday afternoon, between calls from friends and colleagues about the announcement that he was stepping down as athletic director at Christopher Newport University.
But Woollum stayed because he succeeded and in the process made the Peninsula a home. He built a mountainous legacy, first nurturing the school's basketball program and then the entire athletic department into a small-college power.
He followed the lead of Paul Trible, the force of nature who doubles as the school president, in transforming what was once a four-year "community college" in the truest sense of the term into a dynamic university campus with state, regional and even national reach.
"If anyone had told me when I interviewed that I'd still be here and we'd be in the position that we're in now," he said, "I'd have probably run out of here saying, this person's crazy."
Woollum is at 28 years and counting at CNU. Much as when he gave up his basketball coaching gig a couple of years ago, he is re-tooling rather than retiring. His new official title is Director of Athletics Emeritus, which is not simply a free pass onto campus and into games.
He will focus on specific projects and areas, related to alumni and fundraising and university advancement. He leaves the daily grind of budgets, eligibility, personnel evaluations, drug testing, scheduling, etc., to others. Plus, it gives him time to sharpen his short game.
That Woollum is one of the increasingly rare figures in college athletics who gets to call his own shot speaks to his gifts, his personality and his self-awareness.
Though Woollum won, and won big, at CNU, he never viewed the job as a stepping stone. Turns out that Division I's loss was the Captains' gain.
The nine years he spent as an assistant coach at Marshall were an education that he wouldn't trade for anything, he says now. He watched as the pressure to win exacted an at times unbearable toll on men he admired and respected.
"That kind of cured me of a lot of Division I ambitions," he said.
Woollum looked for something else and thought he found it at Christopher Newport, where basketball coach Bev Vaughan had given him an opportunity as an assistant coach 11 years prior.
After returning in 1984, it took Woollum only two years to win the program's first conference title. That launched a remarkable run that included 502 wins, 17 NCAA appearances and 13 league championships in 26 seasons.
Though only marginally prepared when he became athletic director in 1987, the position challenged and broadened him in ways he could hardly fathom. The basketball court was his refuge, but the scores of coaches and athletes in all sports that he oversaw through the years became a second family.
It wasn't until Woollum gave up coaching hoops a couple of years ago that he could finally enjoy some of the perks of the AD position, such as traveling with the women's volleyball and basketball teams to NCAA championship sites.
"I get as much joy out of watching our other teams compete as I did my own," he said. "It's probably more nerve-wracking because I have no control over them at all, but it's been terrific."
There are times when Woollum walks around the CNU campus in amazement at what's been done and what lies ahead. From the days of coaching future professional Lamont Strothers in the old sweatbox that was Ratcliffe Gym to an office that looks out over the C.J. Woollum Court at the palatial Freeman Center, he is blessed beyond description by the accomplishments and by the young people whose lives he has touched.
"That's why we're in it," he said. "The accolades are great, the championships are great. But we're here to nurture men and women into their adult lives. You try to help them become productive members of society. That's why you do it."
Dave Fairbank can be reached at 757-247-4637 or by email at email@example.com. Follow his blog at dailypress.com/sports or on twitter at @FairbankDP.