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Woolard's roots reveal respect

USF's new AD earned a solid reputation, especially in his hometown of Carbondale, Ill.

PETE YOUNG
Published May 23, 2004

For 38 years, Doug Woolard and the modest Midwestern college town of Carbondale, Ill., were intertwined like a braided belt.

His father had been the local dentist. Woolard starred in three sports for Carbondale High. He attended college at Southern Illinois in Carbondale, along the edge of the Shawnee National Forest.

In 1975, at age 25, he became the varsity basketball coach at his high school alma mater. By 28 he was the athletic director, and for years he vigorously filled both roles.

"He was a community leader," said Fred Huff, longtime sports information director at Southern Illinois. "Doug was easily one of the top personalities in the city of Carbondale (population 26,000, plus about 21,000 SIU students). He was top-drawer, and he earned it.

"He just was extremely well respected at every level in Carbondale."

Woolard and his wife, Cherrie, also a Carbondale native, could have sat for the chamber of commerce portrait. They were entrenched for nearly four decades.

Then, in 1988 - poof - the Woolards were gone.

"Not only was I really surprised," Huff said, "but a number of people were almost shocked when Doug picked up and left."

Woolard's life and career suddenly pivoted, but his foundation was ingrained. The strong ethics, virtues and skills - he is equal parts everyman and natural leader - he accrued over nearly four decades in Carbondale have guided his 16-year ascension in collegiate athletics.

* * *

Woolard's bold break from everything he had ever known began with a somewhat risky step, to Washington State in Pullman.

He had been a fixture in Carbondale, compiling a 265-93 coaching record and numerous honors in 13 seasons. Notables such as former Florida guard Dan Cross and former Illinois guard Steve Bardo passed through his program.

"In my 20 years (coaching), Doug was as good a coach as I've ever been around," said Mike Curtis, a longtime friend and coach from Carbondale. "High school coaching lost an outstanding coach when Doug quit.

"He could have stayed here and won 20 games year after year and been very successful. He's still the winningest coach in Carbondale history. We spent hours and hours at clinics and talking basketball. Doug worked very hard at being a great coach."

In Pullman he was a newcomer assistant AD, a 38-year-old rookie.

"Pullman, Washington? You almost can't find Pullman, Washington," said Curtis, perhaps overlooking Carbondale's relative obscurity. "He took a big chance and went a long way."

"It was a courageous move," said John Cherry, who coached Woolard in high school. "We didn't talk about the money, but I know what entry level assistant ADs make.

"He took a step of faith believing in his ability to move up the ladder."

Jim Livengood lured Woolard from his Carbondale cocoon. Woolard had been on the AD search committee that brought Livengood to Southern Illinois, and when Livengood left to take the AD job at Washington State, he convinced Woolard to uproot his family - the Woolards have two children, Chris, 30, and Amy, 25 - and join him.

"There were mixed emotions with heading into uncharted waters," said Chris, a former college basketball assistant who was entering his freshman year of high school at the time. "From the time I could stand and walk I was at my dad's practices every day. It had always been a dream to play for him in high school, and now that wouldn't happen.

"It turned out it was a great move for our family. We were around big-time Pac-10 athletics, and that was something that was very neat for me."

* * *

The dividends came quickly. After one year Woolard was promoted to associate AD. Working with notable coaches such as Dennis Erickson, Mike Price and Kelvin Sampson, he rapidly established himself.

By 1994, just six years removed from Carbondale, Woolard was named athletic director at Saint Louis. Huff (whose son, Fred, works in sports information at USF) and others expected him to eventually return as AD at SIU. Saint Louis, however, is just two hours away, and Woolard spent the past 10 years there impressing some of the biggest names in sports.

"He's the kind of guy who doesn't come into the room and blow everybody away; he's just a solid, solid guy," said St. Louis-based broadcaster Bob Costas, who chaired the Saint Louis AD search committee. "He's a very trustworthy guy who has credibility. He doesn't promise what he can't do or twist your arm with a sales pitch.

"He has that kind of Midwestern sensibility. He worked very, very hard (at Saint Louis) in a place where the Billikens had to take somewhat of a back seat to the Cardinals, Rams and Blues, and was important in building that program up."

Woolard, 54, was instrumental in forming Conference USA, and Saint Louis' student-athletes have led C-USA in cumulative GPA the first eight years of the league.

"Some guys are operators. They have a rap that they lay on you," Costas said. "Not him. Doug is sincere, a straight shooter but with a lot of enthusiasm and credibility. He has a relatively small ego for someone in that kind of position. He doesn't need a whole lot of credit or to wind up on the front page of the newspaper."

* * *

Woolard was born Feb. 10, 1950, the second of Norma and Archie Woolard's five children and the oldest of four sons.

"I was one year above Doug and didn't know him very well, but his father was my dentist and I absolutely loved him," said Cherrie Woolard, who will be married to Doug 33 years on June19. "He'd wake me up in my dental chair to work on me. He was so gentle and kind, I would fall asleep."

In 1964, when his eldest son was about to enter high school, Archie died in a car accident while coming back from a St. Louis Cardinals game. Woolard missed the first week of school, then broke his collarbone on his first play at football practice.

"It thrusts you into a different role without a dad," Woolard said. "That's why I have as much respect for anybody as I have for my mom. She was an assistant manager at the Southern Illinois University bookstore, and she raised all five of us."

Woolard immersed himself in athletics, and basketball was his best sport. Many remember the image of Woolard after his last high school game, a 64-63 overtime loss in the elite eight at the 1968 Illinois state tournament. The agony-of-defeat picture ran in the newspaper.

"It was quite an emphatic photo," said Cherry, who coached Woolard through his junior year. "Doug had it in his office. It was the epitome of dejection. He was devastated more than anybody else. He was sitting on the floor in a 17,000-seat assembly hall, hands between his knees."

Woolard's playing career ended - he played one year of freshman ball at SIU - but his coaching/administrative career soon took off.

"I think Doug felt to some extent that he had to be a dentist, for his father," Curtis said. "But as time went on he realized he loved sports and had a lot to contribute. His father was a big supporter of the high school.

"Doug and I have talked about how much his father would have loved what he did."

Just three years out of college he was the varsity basketball coach. He added the AD duties three years after that.

"Here I was, only seven, eight years older than some of the players," Woolard said. "It was an honor to have a chance to coach there."

* * *

Woolard's teams were renowned for their variety of confounding, trapping defenses, and for their meticulously detailed preparation.

Preparation has been a Woolard hallmark since his coaching days, as is his habit of reinforcing positive axioms or phrases.

"You'd hear Doug in your mind," Curtis said. "He'd push those things in."

Woolard-isms such as "head on a swivel," for off-the-ball defenders, and "the floor doesn't score," for offensive players caught looking down, still resonate years later.

"I think terminology is important," Woolard said. "Being able to communicate is very important, no matter what the profession. I tried to have terminology that people could understand and visualize."

One of his mottos is "sixty percent of success is attitude," and Saint Louis athletics was recognized for its positive spirit.

"It's a program that's easy to like," St. Louis Sports Commission president Frank Viverito said. "It's accessible, it's got things in perspective, it's reasonably successful.

"All the people there - coaches, SIDs, senior administration - they are solid people who have worked hard and built a good athletic program."

Woolard has transferred his lifelong values into his work.

"The things that are important to him don't change," Chris Woolard said.

"Ethics, morals, treating people the right way, doing things the right way, he's going to carry those over to anything he does."

That Woolard left Carbondale might have been a shock. That his success carried beyond its borders is anything but.

"He just has that rare ability to get along no matter what group he happens to be with at the time," Huff said. "He can get down and dirty and have a couple beers with folks, or he can meet with a church group and talk in that direction.

"He's a very versatile person, very smart."

* * *

Woolard was named athletic director at South Florida on May12.

Perhaps it was destined.

"When he and Cherrie first got married, she said she wanted to live in Florida," Curtis said. "It just took a while."

USF is a major challenge. The Bulls are in the process of joining the Big East. Woolard hasn't worked with a football program since 1994 at Washington State. And USF, like Saint Louis, is in the shadows of three major pro sports teams.

To the folks in Carbondale, it sounds like Woolard is the perfect man for the job.

"Doug is going to be a success no matter what he does," Huff said.

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