PHOTO: Mike Krzyzewski and Herman Bulls at Coach K’s annual Duke leadership seminar.
By TOM SHANAHAN
DURHAM – Herman Bulls knew Mike Krzyzewski early on, long before Duke’s basketball Hall-of-Famer was Coach K, his iconic identity. He was an unknown Army coach with a silent K preceding his tongue-twisting surname.
Similarly, Krzyzewski knew Bulls when he was merely a budding West Point cadet broadcasting Army basketball games on the campus radio station, WKDT. Bulls had yet to start his military career that rose to a Colonel followed by civilian life launching his highly honored and profitable business career with a Fortune 500 company, Jones, Long LaSalle.
Yes, Bulls, 63, lacks the household name recognition of Duke’s coach born to Polish immigrants in Chicago’s hard-scrabble streets, but he has his own inspiring story to tell as an African-American emerging from the Deep South’s iniquity of segregation.
Bulls was born to parents in Alabama, circa 1956, four months after his father, a laborer, was killed in a crash on Highway 72. William George Bulls, who despite his working-man status managed to buy two plots of farm land, drove his tractor from one parcel to another when he was fatally hit by a tractor trailer truck.
His mother, Lucy Bells Bulls, was a domestic — until her husband’s death. She worked other jobs while she returned to school to earn her General Education Diploma and later became a Licensed Practical Nurse.
That kept together her family that numbered seven children upon Herman’s birth.
“My mom was courageous and a hard worker, but her best trait was her stubbornness,” Bulls said. “With families in the South, people come together and want to help. They said they would take some of her kids. But my mother said, ‘I’m keeping my kids.’
“Look, when I think I’ve had a bad day there are two things I think of: One, I go back to what mother endured; two, I go back to Army Ranger school — the toughest thing mentally or physically I’ve ever done in my life.”
How could Krzyzewski and Bulls, two guys born about a decade apart and from humble yet disparate beginnings, come to know each other and grow to a pinnacle of success in their respective careers? Both have lived the American dream.
Well, their intersection was West Point.
MEETING COACH K
For those that gain admission to the U.S. Military Academy — the stone fortress on the scenic banks of New York’s Hudson River — opportunities abound if they can endure the demanding academic and military training curriculum designed to build leaders.
Krzyzewski, who played basketball at West Point for Hall-of-Fame Coach Bobby Knight, turned his opportunity into his own Hall-of-Famer coaching career.
When he fulfilled his Army commitment and retired a captain, he served as a graduate assistant under Knight at Indiana. Then Knight recommended Army hire his former pupil, even though that meant the Black Knights appointed the future Coach K as a 28-year-old rookie head coach for the 1975-76 season.
At the time, Bulls, who had arrived as a West Point recruited as a quarterback by football coach Homer Smith, was re-adjusting his ambitions beyond football, but more on that later. Broadcasting Army basketball provided Bulls a unique vantage point into Krzyzewski’s career.
When Bulls visited Duke’s campus in October for a leadership seminar, at Coach K’s invitation, he reflected over breakfast at the J.B. Duke Hotel on his West Point experience and friendship with college basketball’s all-time winningest coach.
Krzyzewski invited 20 leaders ranging from Fortune 500 company executives to high-ranking military officers and commanders to his seminar COLE, Center of Leadership Ethics. A break from the schedule included a chance for Bulls to attend a Duke practice – the latest of his “now” windows of the venerable 72-year-old coach in his 40th season with the Blue Devils compared to his “then” view of a young Army coach.
“I can remember going to his practices at West Point, and his intensity has not waned from then to now,” Bulls said. “I’ve seen his practices up close and personal. I can tell you he is as demanding of an individual I’ve ever seen, but at the same time, to a person, his players love him because he teaches excellence and demands excellence.”
“And he obviously knows what he’s doing and talking about. I’ve never heard him say this, but in my view, his lesson to his players has been, ‘I can make you a better basketball player and person, but you’ve got to listen to me.’ He’s looking for that type of kid.”
Beyond WKDT football and basketball play-by-play duties, Bulls launched a popular sports interview show. Borrowing from an innovative NBC comedy show of the era, “Saturday Night Live,” he dubbed his program, “Thursday Night Live.”
One day he received a call from Krzyzewski asking if he could be a guest. A bond developed.
Bulls still has pictures of him holding Krzyzewski’s then-young daughters at an arena before games. In the 1977-78 season, Bulls’ senior year, Army earned an NIT bid, a more prestigious selection then at a time when the NCAA Tournament still took only 32 schools before the current field of 68.
“Herman has been one of West Point’s great graduates – very active,” Krzyzewski said in a recent interview, referencing Bulls’ financial donations to the football program and his involvement in various West Point advisory committees as a long-time board member of the Association of Graduates. “I got a letter from him about wanting to endorse one of his classmates for a distinguished graduate award. We’re lucky he’s involved.”
Their bond has lived on long past West Point.
“So much of relationships are developed through sports,” Coach K said. “When you work with someone within a team, there is a relationship and deepness. That has developed. Herman is one of those guys.”
Bulls, Class of 1978, served in the Army 30 years (active and reserve) and entered the business world in 1989 after 11-plus years of active service. His high standing at West Point gained admission to Harvard to earn a Masters Business Administration degree.
As a businessman he is Vice-Chairman and International Director of Jones Lang LaSalle, an international real estate firm, and founder of the firm’s Public Institutions unit. His business honors include recognition from Savoy Magazine among the nation’s top 100 African-Americans in corporate America and by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) as one of the top 50 directors in America.
He also serves on several boards — Fortune 500, private and non-profit companies and organizations. Next year he joins Coach K’s COLE board.
He is Vice Chairman of West Point Association of Graduates Board of Directors and a Governor of the American Red Cross.
As a member of the Board of USAA, he expressed his pride representing the company as the title sponsor of the Army-Navy Game. He is in Philadelphia for the 120th meeting on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
The opportunities West Point provided him to start a remarkable journey are the reasons Bulls continues to give back, he says.
“My life has been a salmon swimming upstream, but somehow I made it because people cared,” Bulls said. “That was the basic thing I got out of West Point. People cared about you.”
That gratitude didn’t leave him as he pondered military retirement to enter the business world.
Bulls and his wife, Iris, delayed it as they both accepted positions at West Point. Bulls taught finance and economics; his wife, who is a retired Lt. Colonel in the Army reserves, worked in the admissions office. Two of their three sons were born in their time working at West Point.
“I was so impressed with officers that taught me at West Point,” Bulls said. “These were men that had come back from Vietnam. They were young and energetic. I was coming off the farm, so to speak, but they spent time with me.
“At West Point, if you want to make it you can make it. They’re not going to give it to you, but they’re going to work with you on the academic side until the cows come home. I thought back to those individuals that impacted my life at West Point; they were such great leaders. I decided I can go back to teach and put off making money.”
WEST POINT BECKONED
West Point first knocked on Bulls’ door recruiting him as a star high school quarterback at Coffee High, Class of 1974, in Florence, Ala. He entered the recently integrated high school that was 85 percent white as a freshman in the fall of 1970.
Fortunately for Bulls, his time was a changing period in America history. The Civil Rights movement, spurred by the Supreme Court’s Board v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and the Montgomery bus boycott with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in1955 and 1956, had pushed America toward living up to its creed of equal opportunity.
Joe Hollis, Coffee’s freshman football team coach in 1970, played Bulls as his quarterback. Hollis, a young teacher/coach that was later a head coach at Arkansas State (1997-2001), was a hometown state legend. He had led Coffee to a 1964 football state title and later played quarterback and baseball at Auburn University.
As a sophomore, Bulls was one of four 10th graders that lettered on the varsity, playing defensive back, for coach Buddy Moore. His junior year he was a “rover” and backup QB. As a senior, the 1973-74 school year, Moore named Bulls as Coffee’s first full-time starting black quarterback.
“I did take a little heat on it,” recalled Moore, now 86 and still residing in Florence. “If it had been the first year of integration, I probably would have gotten some bad heat, but our school had been integrated a couple years before Herman got there. Plus, Herman was such a great kid that everybody respected him. It was a natural decision. He was as smart as a whip in the classroom and had a knack for playing quarterback. He was respected in our community and the teams we played against.”
Another reason it worked out for Bulls was Condredge Holloway had cleared the way. Holloway, the first black quarterback in the Southeastern Conference at the University of Tennessee from 1972-74, had played at Huntsville Lee, a school that was one of Coffee’s league rivals. Holloway’s senior year at Lee was Bulls’ freshman season at Coffee.
Holloway has said Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant told him Crimson and Tide fans weren’t ready for a black quarterback; he would only recruit him as a defensive back.
Instead, Holloway made history at Tennessee.
Imagine the doors Bryant, a god-like figure in Alabama with Coca-Cola billboards of him walking on water, could have forced open if he had integrated his football team before he dressed his first black player in the 1971 season. He didn’t play a black quarterback until Walter Lewis, 1980-83.
Sometimes the grass roots of American society are ahead of those in leadership positions. For all of Alabama’s tragic history as a racist state, not everyone was on the wrong side of history.
The spirit of Atticus Finch, the fictional character from “To Kill a Mockingbird” played in the movie by Gregory Peck, was in Moore, Hollis and other Alabama high school coaches that demonstrated they were ahead of Bryant, a man otherwise in a leadership position.
Hollis’ move was bold, but a freshman team flies under the radar compared to a varsity coach’s dissected decisions.
“I think about that from time to time,” Bulls said of Hollis and Moore. “Joe’s wife taught at the school, and I knew her well, too. I’ve never spoken to Joe about it. I’ve got to someday. But the guy that really had a decision to make as the varsity coach was Buddy Moore.”
In addition to Bulls being a trailblazer, he was a Renaissance Man. His senior year he was elected Coffee’s student council president, was a Boys State Delegate and was member of the National Honor Society.
He was a three-sport athlete, also playing basketball and track, including doubling in the baseball and track as a four-sport athlete his sophomore year. Upon graduation he held the school record in the high jump and finished third in the state meet his senior year.
But in yet another example of race’s complicated dimensions, Bulls’ ease fitting into a predominantly white high school didn’t go unnoticed among his black classmates. Some called him an “Oreo” – white on the inside and black on the outside.
“I can’t say it didn’t bother me a little,” Bulls said. “But I decided to do what I thought was right. In the end I had the respect of the black students and the white students or I wouldn’t have been elected student council president.”
His well-rounded achievements caught the attention of Army’s football coach. Smith sent Gary Steele, West Point’s first black football letterman (1966-68), to recruit him only eight years after Steele broke ground.
In the course of getting to know Bulls, Steele learned about his early start in radio.
Bulls hosted a weekly radio show on a local mainstream station, WLAY (later WOWL). He named it “Coffee Capers” and interviewed Coffee student leaders while spinning music.
The same station aired Coffee High football show with coach Buddy Moore reviewing games. Moore’s show preceded Bear Bryant’s Alabama football show.
Steele used Bulls’ radio interest nugget as a recruiting tool, informing the prospect of West Point’s campus radio station.
“There was something about the words West Point that meant so much to me,” Bulls said. “Even though I was the quarterback, president of the student council and on the National Honor Society, you’re 17 years old. There was a little fear in me in the back of my mind. Am I really this good?
“Then this place West Point wants you. They tell you it’s tough, but we’re going to help you through it. In my moments of reflection, that rang a chord with me. People are telling me it’s hard, but I can be successful. I decided, ‘By golly, I’m going to do the hardest thing I can do.’ ”
GIVING UP FOOTBALL
Bulls played quarterback on Army’s freshman team, but he came to West Point in same class as Leamon Hall, ultimately a four-year varsity quarterback for the Black Knights.
Bulls was converted to defensive back his sophomore year and earned a JV letter while also playing on the scout team. But after spring football in 1976, prior to what would have been his junior fall season, Smith called him into his football office.
“He told me you’re not going to start an Army-Navy Game,” Bulls recalled.
Bulls knew what the coach meant. He might see spot duty over the next two seasons, but he wasn’t going to be a major contributor.
“He was being honest,” Bulls said. “At West Point, the Army-Navy Game means everything.”
The grandest college football rivalry is a year-long rallying call at both West Point and the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Bulls recalled his first game, which includes the “March On” when Cadets and Midshipmen take the field before the game in separate turns.
In those days, the Army-Navy Game was annually played at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. That meant long bus rides from New York to and from the game.
“Falling asleep on the ride back to cold snowy West Point made you wonder why you were doing this,” Bulls recalled. “However after returning to the Academy around 4 a.m. it was off to the barracks and return to the rituals of plebe (freshman) year.
“The thoughts of why am I doing this faded into the snowy cold grey West Point Rockland Highland home. I was back into the routine and had Christmas break occurring in three weeks. ‘I can handle this.’ ”
At the same Bulls’ football door closed on him, another door opened.
He was named one of 50 cadets to attend Ranger school over the summer of 1976. The selection was based on his leadership as well as mental and physical prowess.
Without football, he began to spend more time at WKDT. He took on football and basketball play-by-play duties and launched his “Thursday Night Live” show.
“I had always been involved in sports from junior high to high school,” Bulls said. “I had not gone home after school unless it was a game day. When I stopped playing football, all of the sudden I didn’t have that.
“But in the end sports made me a better business person. It’s all about using your limited time. You’ve got to make decisions and get things done. My entire life was up tempo. People ask me how I do everything, working and serving on boards. I say I don’t know any other way. You have to be organized.”
FATHER’S SON AND GRANDSONS
Although Bulls was born after his father’s death, he believes he gained his “entrepreneurial spirit” from the industrious man he never knew.
While working as a janitor for the Tennessee Valley Authority, he bought two plots of farm land totaling 120 acres in Center Star, Ala., that are still in the family. Bulls still wonders how his father managed to work as a laborer and buy land amid Alabama discrimination.
However his father accomplished overcoming evil obstacles of segregation, the son also rises. Bulls has passed on his father’s work ethic to his own sons.
Herman E. Bulls, Jr. is West Point class of 2005 graduate. He played two years of lacrosse at West Point. He’s now a major at Fort Benning in Georgia and recent Duke Fuqua MBA graduate.
Nathaniel Bulls graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., in the Class of 2006. He played football three years and ran track two. He followed in his father’s footsteps, broadcasting the school’s football games his senior year.
Jonathan Bulls is a West Point grad, Class of 2011. He played football four years as a punter, including being named the 2010 Armed Forces Bowl team. Army’s 16-14 victory in the Armed Forces Bowl over SMU was the Black Knights’ first bowl victory in 20 years.
Those are Herman Bulls’ next generation rewards from a West Point-inspired-and-guided life. On a lighter note, he has another West Point treasure unique to his experiences.
On the occasion of Krzyzewski winning his 1,000th NCAA college basketball game, a record he set when he surpassed Bobby Knight’s 902 total and has extended with each subsequent victory, Bulls sent Coach K a congratulatory letter. He reminisced about having Krzyzewski as a guest on his “Thursday Night Live” show.
Coach K wrote back, “Herman, thank you very much. Yes, I owe my career’s success to being on your radio show.”
Their West Point intersection remains wide and eventful.
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