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Before she came to Hiram College, Director of Athletics Ellen Dempsey spent years coaching at colleges and universities before a health crisis interrupted her journey. A couple of years dealing with a serious illness – now long in her rear view mirror – gave Dempsey time and perspective to think about the direction of her career in athletics. Sports administration intrigued her. And, she knew that she still wanted to coach.
At Hiram, she has been able to combine coaching and administration.
“I came to Hiram 13 years ago not knowing a thing about the day-to-day operations and culture of Hiram,” says Dempsey. “There were only three things that mattered to me.
“The first and most important was whether the school was academically strong enough to attract quality students. The second whether I would have a real opportunity to make the volleyball team better. And, the third was whether I would be near an urban area, so I could enjoy what that has to offer. All the answers came up yes, and I’ve never had reason to doubt my decision.”
For the first eight years with the Terriers, she coached.
“I remember an early conversation with my team,” Dempsey says. “I told them each of them was there because they had a passion for volleyball and wanted to get better. The D-I kids are a little bigger and a little faster, but the game is the same. I told our players if they would put in the work, we would not lose matches 3-0. That was the start. That year we played five 5-game matches, losing the first four, but winning the fifth versus Allegheny and gaining a bid to the North Coast Athletic Conference Championships. The students came out of the stands and onto the floor to celebrate. It was pandemonium. We got better every year after that.”
Dempsey coached until 2011. Her teams won two conference championships, a conference tournament and participated in the NCAA Division III championships four times, even reaching the Sweet Sixteen along the way.
In that time, her interest in sports administration had not gone neglected. Since 2011, she has been a full-time athletics administrator. In 2013, following Tom Mulligan’s retirement, she was promoted to Director of Athletics. She remains directly involved with the students, however.
“I want to be available to these Hiram athletes,” she explains. “Our student-athletes are more than 40 percent of the student body, and they are involved in every aspect of the community. We’re proud of how they represent the institution on the field of play and in the community. Coming to work to serve them is what gets me excited every day.”
She doesn’t want that involvement to end with current students, though. She wants to work with Terriers past and present. Dempsey is specifically focusing on alumni involvement, and is currently collaborating with the Development and Alumni Relations Office to form a resource council for athletics.
“Your alma mater needs support for its athletic programs,” Dempsey says. “We want every team to be at a level where it is competitive with whoever we’re playing that day. We are definitely making progress toward achieving that.”
A Far-Reaching Journey
Ellen Dempsey’s athletic journey has taken her to many locations across the U.S. She has:
The Learning Commons: All About Success
Building competitive teams isn’t just about recruiting student-athletes. It’s also about retaining them. Whether it’s grades or homesickness or relationship issues, college is a big transformation for all students.
To address that, Dempsey started Hiram’s Learning Commons program so that student-athletes would have the benefit of active, engaged mentors. This program is more than giving an athlete a phone number to call if they have a problem.
The Learning Commons program started with freshmen on the football team. Each became part of one of several small groups that meet two hours every week – same time and place – with a mentor. The mentors are not coaches or faculty members. They are staff members who act as advocates. Academic performance improved dramatically. Eligibility and retention shot up as well. The Learnings Common soon came to include all Hiram teams.
Today, this supportive program is available to all students regardless of whether they are student-athletes. Participants in each cohort now come from multiple teams as well as the student body as a whole.
“We want to make sure all our students – not just athletes – are in a good place academically and socially,” Dempsey says.