SPORTS PERSON OF THE YEAR: Mulhern shines in 2012Recent success helps Mulhern and 'Jacket women land 'Lance and Billy' awards
By: By Don Leighton, For The Telegram, Superior Telegram
As the new year begins, the time has come for year-end reflections, resolutions and the selection of the top sports story of the year.
The highlight of 2012 comes courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Superior women’s basketball team and head coach Don Mulhern.
What the 2011-12 and 2012-13 teams and Mulhern have accomplished is nothing short of history-making, and their exploits have earned them the coveted Lance and Billy Team of the Year and Sports Person of the Year awards.
Mulhern is in his seventh season coaching the UWS women. He is a tireless recruiter who pays attention to detail and puts thousands of miles on his car as he recruits around Minnesota, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
You can find him in a gym watching AAU basketball during the summer months, or on the highways traveling to watch a girls high school game during the school year. He has been known to teach at UWS, hold practice, drive to Green Bay or Milwaukee to watch a potential recruit and then drive back to Superior to catch a couple hours of sleep before teaching again the next day.
“Don is so dedicated to the game of basketball and to his players,” said Harold Mulhern, a cousin to Don Mulhern and assistant coach at UWS for the past five seasons. “The time he puts in during the year is unbelievable. I don’t know when he sleeps.”
Harold Mulhern serves as a confidant for his cousin and brings a wealth of coaching experience. His resume is quite impressive with 675 wins, 13 conference titles, eight regional titles, three sectional titles and a state championship during a 49-year coaching career. He also served 27 years as a football coach and has been part of five state championships.
Harold Mulhern was inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association and Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association halls of fame in 2010 and 2007, respectively; and he holds great respect for his cousin’s coaching style.
“His attention to detail and fundamentals is well-known, but he welcomes ideas and can readily adapt to the type of team he has or plays against,” Harold Mulhern said. “He is so good to the girls and really cares for them, not just as a basketball player but as a person in school and in life. His coaching philosophy reflects teamwork, fundamentals and respect for each of his players.”
Eric Boerboom worked as a student assistant coach for Don Mulhern in the 2006-07 season and returned this year to serve as an assistant coach.
“I am blessed to have the opportunity to coach with Don, and given his character and work ethic I am not surprised at all to see him bring success to the UW-Superior women’s basketball program,” Boerboom said.
The UWS women have been making history recently. They won 12 games during the 2011-12 season and qualified for their first WIAC playoff berth since 2004. On Jan. 4, 2012 they won at UW-Oshkosh to become the first UWS women’s team to ever win there, and Mulhern was named the WIAC Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year, making him just the second Yellowjacket women’s basketball coach to earn the honor.
UWS continued its success this season, starting with a victory over UW-Stevens Point on Dec. 1 — the first win for UWS since 1995 and just the fourth in program history. Then on Dec. 12 the Yellowjackets defeated UW-Eau Claire for the first time since 1987.
The team is currently 10-3 — the best start in school history — and had won a program-high six games in a row. The all-time record for victories in a season is 13.
“Our current success is a result of lots of players doing lots to prepare for the season because of their hard work during the off-season, their hours spent all year long in the gym when it may not be required, and the desire to be the best players they can be,” Mulhern said. “Bri Davis, Haley Hart, Kelsey Thingvold (a member of the Qatar National Team) and many others must share in the success this year’s team is realizing. Connie Urmanski is an incredible leader on and off the court has set the bar high.
“The respect that the upper classmen have for the younger players is the best I have ever seen as a coach. That respect equates to teamwork, and that’s why we are performing so well. Every player on the team has contributed in so many ways and must share in the success. We have a lot to do and a long way to go, but I am confident of success because of our players.”
There is not one word about himself in his quote. What does that tell you about Don Mulhern? Personal awards mean nothing to him. He and his players are all about team.
The focus on team unity begins in the recruiting process, Boerboom says. When Mulhern scouts potential recruits he looks for more than just athletic ability; strength of character and a commitment to teamwork are equally vital attributes.
“I think coach has as big of a smile on his face when he sees his players bonding together and having a good time as a team as he does winning a game,” Boerboom said. “He does the right thing and leads by example in doing the right thing rather than the easy or most expedient thing. He has built the program without taking any shortcuts and (is) doing things the right way.”
Mulhern also prefers to step aside and let the spotlight shine on his players. For that reason, this article was written under false pretenses. Don Mulhern thought it was only about the Yellowjacket women being named the 2012 Team of the Year. He had no idea of his selection as Sportsperson of the Year.
But those who know Mulhern say they can think of no one more deserving of the honor.
Connie Urmanski, a senior guard from Edgar, Wis., has spent four years playing for Mulhern.
“Coach genuinely cares about each and every one of his players,” she said. “He recognizes the importance of family and is willing to help any one of us fix a problem we are faced with, no matter what it deals with. These qualities make him relatable to his players and he is open and willing to accept suggestions to trying new things. He stresses the belief in everyone buying it to make us a successful team, and I think that belief is finally paying off.”
Britnee Blake, a 2009 graduate of Superior High School and current guard for the Yellowjackets, offered similar sentiments. She said Mulhern emphasizes building “personal and team chemistry,” which has led to success on the court for the Yellowjackets.
“We all enjoy working hard for one another,” Blake said. “We older girls have been together for four years and these younger girls came in and they already act like they’ve been with us four years. We don’t have to focus on or spend time on team bonding, it’s already there. We know we have a lot of work to do, but we like the direction we’re heading.”
During his 25-year coaching career, Mulhern has always turned programs around. At MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., he took a team with a losing record and transformed it into back-to-back conference champions in 1994-95 and 1995-96, earning conference coach of the year and co-coach of the year honors.
At Lindenwood University in Belleville, Ill., he inherited a men’s team in the bottom half of the conference and turned it into the conference “Team of the Future.” At Rockford (Ill.) College, his team was 21-7 and won the conference championship and earned a bid to the NCAA Division III national tournament in 2006.
His magical touch has continued at UWS.
“The biggest difference about our team from the rest of the years is that we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” said McDonald, a senior and the granddaughter of legendary Chisholm boys basketball coach Bob McDonald. “We all know our roles too, and we accept the role that we have been given in order to be successful. We all prepared during the offseason because success cannot be given to us but needs to be earned. Our team goes into every game knowing that we should win and that we have to win. We no longer hope to play well, we expect it. Coach has instilled that attitude in us.”
The record-setting teams that competed during 2012 truly deserve Team of the Year accolades, and Mulhern’s guidance of those teams makes him the perfect choice as Sports Person of the Year.
“Coach genuinely cares for and believes in each and every one of us as players and people,” said Kristen Nett of Green Bay. “We are a close knit team and he has helped us build those relationships with each other. We know that he works hard for us and in turn we work hard for him and each other.”
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