By DRAKE LOHSE
It’s a wet and gnarly day, windy, cold, and rain is beginning to spit. The sky is so gray it looks royal-blue. A young woman walks past Olmsted, hunched in a t-shirt, with her arms folded over her chest. It’s raining fully by the time she ducks for cover under a tree.
She’s standing under the tree, contemplating staying there until summer break arrives, when she feels a tap at her shoulder. The young woman turns, to see a tall young man smiling and handing her an umbrella. “Have a nice day,” he says, and walks away.
Dolph Pulliam doesn’t remember what year that happened, and he definitely doesn’t think that giving an umbrella to someone who needs one, is any big deal.
“It didn’t strike me as odd or special,” Pulliam said. “That’s part of what Coach [Maury] John tried to instill in us, a sense of taking care of one another.”
The Dolph Pulliam that gave away his umbrella that rainy Drake day wasn’t the same Dolph Pulliam that arrived on campus in 1965.
“I was a very, very shy young man when I first got to Des Moines,” Pulliam said. “You have to understand I was born in the deep south, under the rule of the K.K.K., and Jim Crow. My mother had all nine of us in front of the fireplace. So to go from Mississippi, to being the only African-American in the J-school, that’s a big transition.”
So when did the shift occur? When did Dolph Pulliam, the bashful young man, transition to Dolph Pulliam, the blue-leather suit wearing, magnetic voice of Drake Basketball?
“I remember one day, one of my professors, Mrs. Shaw, got sick of me sitting in the back of the room, never saying much. So one day she tells me to see her after class,” Pulliam said. “And after class, I walk up to her, and she told me something that day that changed my life.”
“Hitch your sternum to a star, she told me,” Pulliam says.
“Hitch your sternum to a star, because then you’ll never look down again.”
From the looks of it, Dolph Pulliam never did look down again. Under head coach Maury John, Pulliam and a group of upstart Bulldogs—including former high school teammate Willie McCarter, led Drake on the now-legendary 1969 run to the Final Four. The team finished 26-5 on the regular season, including a 13-3 MVC record. The Bulldogs went 12-1 at home in 1969, and earned a No. 11 AP and coaches poll ranking.
That dream season doesn’t mean Dolph’s time in Des Moines was all highs and no lows. In 1971, two years removed from Drake’s near upset of UCLA in the Final Four, Coach Maury John abruptly announced his departure from Drake.
“After I had learned about it, I went to see Coach John, I was upset, and I went to see him,” Pulliam said. “I asked him if it was true, and he said of course. And I said, coach, if you’re leaving, I’m coming with you. I’m going with you coach.”
Drake fans can thank Coach John, for talking Dolph out of a life-changing decision.
“He told me, ‘no way’,” Pulliam said, “He told me ‘Dolph, you are Drake University. You’re staying where you are.’ He made me promise that I would stay, and protect whoever sat in the President’s chair.”
Dolph Pulliam stayed on as a Bulldog, and finished out his senior year. The staple of the ‘Belly-Button’ defense, #5’s contributions were quickly getting the attention of professional scouts, along with some of his teammates. Willie McCarter to the Lakers in the first round, Willie Wise to the Warriors in the fifth, and Gary Zeller to the Bullets in the 15th. And finally, Dolph Pulliam, drafted by the Celtics and the Cowboys in the same 1969 summer. On top of all that, he had job offers from Ford, Procter and Gamble, and Westinghouse.
Pulliam had decisions to make, and he hadn’t even graduated yet.
“One of my journalism professors, he pulls me in and says, ‘Dolph, I want you to go put on a suit and tie, and I want you to go on down to KCCI, and I want you to tell them you are going to work for them,” Dolph said, “And that’s exactly what I did, not really knowing at all why I was doing it. I had all these crazy offers. And when I came back to campus that day, I asked my professor why I went down there. He said ‘because Dolph, I want you to be the first African-American broadcaster in the history of Iowa.”
Dodging death threats and backlash, Dolph Pulliam did just that. The Gary, Indiana product went on to anchor Channel 8, making him the first African-Amercian to do so in the state of Iowa. Pulliam also hosted two children’s shows; One, Two, Three, and Dolph’s Cartoon Corner.
“That right there, sums up who Dolph Pulliam is,” Drake Athletic Director Brian Hardin said, “to have all the offers he had, especially at such an age, and to choose instead to stay right here and help Des Moines flourish—that’s what seperates Dolph Pulliam. His commitment to this university and to this city are genuine, and he’s proved it time and time again.”
2018-2019 bought more than a revitalizing year for Drake basketball. A February home game against UNI also served as a reunion for the 1969 Final Four team. Dolph Pulliam and his teammates were honored, just ahead of the 50th Anniversary of their celebrated Cinderella run, right before tip-off.
The Anniversary celebration didn’t end there. Pulliam is co-chairing the 50th Reunion Committee, which will celebrate the ’69 team again during the Drake Relays.
In early March, Pulliam received an unexpected call, from Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner Doug Elgin.
“He calls me up, and he says, ‘Dolph, we want you to induct you into the Hall of Fame,” Pulliam recalled, “and I said ‘what? Me?’”
“He told me ‘Dolph, the points and the wins are only part of it. What we look for is how you extend that influence off the court, to help others.’ He told me I certainly fit the bill.”
That news may come as a surprise to Dolph alone. Pulliam has stayed active in the Drake community since graduating with a degree in Speech and Journalism in 1969. Aside from his broadcasting duties at KCCI, he joined Larry Kotlar on color commentary for Drake Basketball. In 1989, he became Director of Athletic Marketing at Drake, before making the jump to Director of Community Outreach and Development.
Pulliam hosted the Beautiful Bulldog Contest for 19 years, and developed many community outreach initiatives, including Halloween Hoops, the Holiday Food Basket program, Drake’s United Way fundraising campaign, and the Holiday Wish program. Dolph continued to lend his voice to Drake Basketball, helping to document their dizzying 2007-2008 NCAA Tournament campaign.
“Anything Drake asks me to do, I’ll do it,” Pulliam said. “That’s what I want people to know about Dolph Pulliam. You ask me to get something done, I get it done. I find a way.”
Pulliam officially retired on May 13, 2013. Today you can find him back in his native Indiana, having lunch with old friends, spending time with neighborhood youth, and volunteering for multiple causes. Even being retired, Pulliam still finds ways to venture back to Des Moines every now and again. It was on such a visit that he ran into old friend, long-time Drake fanatic Paul Morrison.
“You know, whenever I get the chance to talk to Drake students, I try to tell them the same thing,” Pulliam said. “If you just come here, get your degree, and leave, you did it all wrong. You have to take care of Drake, she’s a living, breathing organism, and she always needs her babies. Look at me and Paul Morrison. I actually got the opportunity to sit with him in the hospital in one of his last days for a couple of hours. We traded stories for a long time, and at the end of that day, you know what he said to me? He said ‘Dolph, don’t forget Drake University. Don’t ever forget Drake, because she’ll never forget you.”
Just a couple of years back in Washington D.C., on a rainy day, a retired Dolph Pulliam is touring the Frederick Douglass museum, when he feels a tap on his shoulder. Standing behind him is woman, holding an umbrella.
“She asks me, ‘are you Dolph?,” Pulliam said. “And I’ll never forget it, she said, ‘I just wanted to return this, and say thank you.”
Photo courtesy of Drake Athletics