Bulldog by Choice

Dolph Pulliam’s future as an NBA or NFL star was sealed—until something much better came along.

By all rights, Dolph Pulliam, AS’69, should be retiring from a run as anchor on ESPN’s SportsCenter—from days spent making his picks, bantering with commentators, and recalling his glory days in the pros.

But that’s not how things worked out for Pulliam, who announced his May 31, 2013, retirement as Drake’s director of community outreach and development as well as Bulldogs basketball commentator. And, if you ask him, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dolph PulliamDifficult Beginnings

Life for Pulliam began in the cotton fields of a segregated Mississippi.

“My nine brothers and sisters and my mother, we all lived in this one-room, tin-roof shack,” recalls Pulliam. “Our jobs were to plant the cotton, tend the cotton, and then harvest the cotton.” His sisters and mother would also clean and cook for the landowner, while even the youngest children—Pulliam was 6, with siblings aged 4 and up—worked the fields.

“At 6, I couldn’t do a lot of work, but they were training me,” he says. “They were teaching me how to do that kind of work for the future.”

His mother, however, wanted much more for her children. She succeeded in relocating them with relatives in Gary, Ind., six months before she was killed, and the older siblings stepped up to help raise the younger ones.

Pulliam excelled, becoming a member of the National Honor Society as well as a standout football and basketball player. He dreamed of a pro career some day with either the Boston Celtics or Dallas Cowboys.

Beyond Hoop Dreams

By his high school graduation in 1965, Pulliam had fielded 50 scholarship offers to play basketball or football at Division I schools and was set to play basketball for Indiana University. Then he met Maury John.

The Drake basketball coach stopped Pulliam after a postseason game, congratulated him, and then raised one simple question that would change everything.

“He asked, ‘What are you going to major in at Indiana?’“ says Pulliam. “The recruiters hadn’t talked with me about that—nobody had talked to me about my education.”

John spoke of a future beyond sports, promising the young athlete a degree in a meaningful field, earned within four years. He also vowed to look after him like a father.

“My brothers and sisters said, ‘You’re going to Drake,’” recalls Pulliam. “I asked why, and they said, ‘Because that man cares about you.’ It was life-changing.”

Calls From the Pros

Dolph Pulliam playing basketballFor Pulliam, arriving on the Drake campus in Iowa was a real eye-opener—for more reasons than just the climate, foods, and accents that differed so markedly from those he knew in his native Mississippi.

“Having been raised in a racist environment, I was afraid to disagree with a white person, stand up on my own, and feel confident in speaking my own words,” says Pulliam. “Drake University taught me how to stand on my own.”

Pulliam majored in speech with a minor in radio/TV broadcasting. He also helped lead the Bulldogs basketball team to the 1969 NCAA tournament.

The Bulldogs narrowly lost to UCLA (featuring star Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the semi-finals, but the team’s—and Pulliam’s—fame was sealed. The first call Pulliam received upon his return to Des Moines was from Tom Landry, declaring that the Dallas Cowboys planned to draft him into the NFL. The next call was from Red Auerbach from the Boston Celtics, offering a draft into the NBA.

His dreams from childhood had come true, but there was more yet to come.

Groundbreaking Choice

In the following weeks, powerful Des Moines leaders wooed Pulliam in hopes he’d stay in Des Moines, followed by offers from several large corporations and then-governor Robert Ray.

But once again, the clear, small voice that guided Pulliam’s future came from a Drake mentor. Jim Duncan, Pulliam’s radio and TV broadcasting professor, encouraged him to meet with the station manager of Channel 8.

By the end of the meeting, Pulliam had a job as an on-air news and sports reporter.

Upon hearing the news, Duncan was not surprised. Recalls Pulliam, “He said, ‘Others can play in the pros. But I wanted you to be the first African-American broadcaster in the state of Iowa. And when you do a good job—and I know you will—you’re going to open the door to other African-Americans.’ That was powerful.”

From Death Threats to Prime Time

Following Pulliam’s first live on-camera report, the Channel 8 switchboards lit up. The calls escalated and death threats followed, leading the station to bring in the FBI. Pulliam had a choice: look out for his safety and work behind the scenes, or persevere on air under the protection of FBI agents. He chose the latter.

“For the next two months or so, those guys were setting my route to work and my route home, making sure they were always different, and searching my car and apartment for bombs,” he says. “I’m so thankful that the station continued to support me.”

The threats stopped, and Pulliam grew to become a popular personality, broadcasting sports and the station’s midday news, and hosting two local children’s shows, 1-2-3 and Dolph’s Cartoon Corner. He also happened to be on air using new satellite technology for the station’s first live remote broadcast—from Drake’s Beautiful Bulldog Contest.

Elevating Drake

When Pulliam “retired” from Channel 8, Drake again came calling. It was 1989, and then-president Michael Ferrari was looking for an athletics marketing and promotions director. And, once again, Pulliam was up for the challenge. He filled that role for more than 10 years before being called on to lead a different charge.

“The president wanted me to work with the people, businesses, and organizations in the neighborhood,” says Pulliam, who was named as Drake’s director of community outreach and development. Pulliam’s team created a Neighborhood Improvement Task Force to work with the police, city, and neighborhood association to tackle the issues of crime and abandoned properties.

“We got the neighborhood stabilized, then looked at revitalizing a vibrant Dogtown,” he says. “We were able to get businesses to take another look at the Drake neighborhood and come back in.”

In his Drake career Pulliam has also hosted and produced the Beautiful Bulldog Contest, a Drake Relays tradition. Since 1969, he has frequently served as the commentator for Bulldogs basketball, donning his “lucky” blue leather suit, which he wore for every game as the 2008 men’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA tournament.

For Pulliam, the past several decades have been a labor of love.

“I see Drake as my surrogate mom,” says Pulliam. “Drake took this inexperienced kid from Gary, Ind., and she nurtured me. She raised me. She educated me. She made me a strong, proud man. And she prepared me for the success that I was later to have. Drake took a chance on this young man, and I didn’t let her down.”

—Jill Brimeyer

 

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