The Straw That Stirs the Drink

By Ben Smith:

Over the last several years, William Carey and winning have become synonymous. The athletic program has established itself as one of the premiere NAIA programs in the country. And not just in a couple of sports, in almost every single one. Obviously, I’m partial to baseball given my role, but it brings me great happiness to see all of our teams earning success. When our teams fall a little short, it tears at my heart because I understand the effort that goes into creating a winning formula. It’s not just the players on the field, or the coaches. There are people behind the scenes that make it all work. Take away any one of them, and the engine breaks down.

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that one of those key components to our athletic success was moving on to another job. And he’s not just a key component, he’s THE key component. Or, since he’s a Yankees fan, I’ll use a Reggie Jackson quote, “the straw that stirs the drink.” My good friend, colleague, and boss, DJ Pulley, is moving on from being William Carey University’s Athletic Director. DJ and I go back twenty years. When I first arrived at WCU, then William Carey College, in 2004, he was the Head Men’s Golf Coach, SID, and Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach. I think our first ever conversation was when he shot down a “walkout” song that I’d chosen that likely wasn’t suitable for a Baptist college (I wasn’t always the ray of sunshine that I am now). I begrudgingly chose another song, and we instantly became friends through the process.

When I first began coaching at Carey in 2009, I’d often stop by his office for advice and a good laugh. I looked up to the way that he carried himself and how easily he wore on people. If you walk across campus with him, you’d better not be in a rush because you’re likely going to be stopped multiple times along the way by students, teachers, or administrators striking up a conversation. His infectious personality and his willingness to make those around him feel good about themselves is something to be admired. That said, DJ isn’t just a likeable person, he’s a winner…which makes me love him even more.

Before he got into coaching and administration at Carey, he was an All-Conference and All-Region golfer. In 2002, he was named the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Year, and to this day is still one of the most successful golfers in WCU history. Now, I don’t play golf, nor do I know anything about it, but rumor is that he’s still pretty dang good. Apparently, he was equally as good of a coach, as he led William Carey to an SSAC Championship in 2011 (the first for the school since joining the conference in 2010). For his efforts, he was named the SSAC Golf Coach of the Year.

Fast forward to 2016. DJ was named WCU’s Athletic Director, and the results were immediately felt. It wasn’t without hardship, as he had to navigate the department through the January 2017 tornado that left most of the athletic facilities in need of repair. I can say with certainty that the department didn’t skip a beat. Heck, it even got better! After the tornado, the baseball team went to the World Series for the first time since 1978. In the fall of 2018, the women’s soccer team won the first NAIA National Championship for the school since 1969 when baseball team won a title. In 2020, the Men’s Indoor Track & Field team won another natty for WCU. William Carey has won the Commissioner’s Cup (awarded to the best athletic department in the SSAC) every single year that DJ has been the Athletic Director, except 2020 when the award wasn’t given out. He’s been named as the SSAC Athletic Director of the Year three times (2017, 2018, and 2021). WCU has also finished in the Top 10 of the Learfield Directors Cup (overall NAIA athletic department standings) four times (2017, 2019, 2021, and 2023) during his time at the helm of Carey athletics.

Like most other athletic departments, DJ had to navigate us through the Covid days. I’m not sure what everyone else was doing, but I know we had every resource available to us to ensure not only our safety, but that we’d keep doing what it took to be successful. Through his actions it was apparent that the health and well-being of our student athletes came first, but next was that they’d be able to operate in a way to where they could keep winning. When I’d hear other coaches from around the country panicking over how they’d hold their department together, I never once questioned whether we’d be alright. We all knew that we had a more than capable leader that was going to take care of his department.

DJ never failed to go to bat for his staff. In his time as Athletic Director, our staff has grown tremendously. Most of us that have been at WCU for a while have worn plenty of different hats, oftentimes coaching multiple sports, and teaching classes. He paved the way to put those days behind us. Improvements to facilities have been made during his tenure to make WCU one of the premiere NAIA Athletic Departments in the nation. Most importantly out of everything he’s done, he’s worked to ensure that our student athletes finish their degrees and graduate. With a “put others first” mentality, he’s perhaps done more for our department than anyone before him, most of the time behind the scenes.

Over the last few years, I still take the time to swing by DJ’s office for advice, or a laugh. With the two of us being in the same season of life with our families, he’s always been someone I could lean on, or vent to when frustrated. He’s always been fair, reasonable, and it has been a privilege to work for him. Although I have faith that our administration will find another leader to fill his position, it will be difficult to find someone as passionate about William Carey Athletics as DJ Pulley.

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