When Lori Culler came to Huntington University in 1982 as a transfer student, she never imagined the school would be her home for the next thirty-five years.
As a two-sport athlete, the Pennsylvania native dedicated herself to HU athletics from the start, but in 2016, she’s even more invested, serving as both the women’s basketball head coach and athletic director.
During her youth, Culler visited Huntington for United Brethren Church conferences and Bible-quizzing, but ruled the school out as a high school student because it lacked a softball program. When she visited HU during the spring break of her freshmen year at Shippensburg State College, Culler learned the Foresters were starting a softball program in the fall, which she called “a neat answer to prayer.”
Attending a public college for a year helped Culler notice the spiritual “emphases” Huntington adhered to. When she and her father walked in the gym to speak with Connie Updike, the head women’s basketball coach, they found the team in a huddle praying. The scene sealed the deal.
“I told my dad, ‘yeah, this is where I belong,’” she said, noting her team continues the end-of-practice prayer ritual even today.
In her three years in forest green and white, Culler raked in 1,307 points on the hardwood and helped her team to a NCCAA national championship.
As a fifth-year senior with no remaining eligibility, she became one of the assistant coaches for the women’s basketball team in 1985. The unconventional season proved to be the opportunity of a lifetime.
That year, HU enlisted the women’s basketball head coach to also lead the men’s team. The arrangement only lasted one game before he handed over the women’s position to an assistant coach, Carol Harding.
“She gave it her best shot for a while, maybe a couple of weeks, and things weren’t going well with the team,” Culler remembered.
She said making in-game decisions did not come naturally for Harding. Before the team’s game at Indiana Tech, Harding offered Culler the opportunity to coach the game, which the underdog Foresters won under her direction. Harding then told Culler she could assume all the responsibilities of head coaching.
“She (Harding) said, ‘If you just want to take over… it won’t be on you, it will be on me as a coach,’” Culler recalled. “And I, of course, jumped at that opportunity.”
Culler guided the Foresters to an NCCAA District Championship that season, earning a bid to Nationals. Huntington awarded her the position of head coach, one she’s now held for 30 years.
“My heart and soul were here at Huntington University,” she said. “When that opportunity presented itself, I wasn’t ready to give up athletics.”
Despite graduating with an elementary education degree, Culler worked for the university’s information technology department for seven years to be full-time. At the same time, she squeezed night classes at Ball State in between practices and workdays, determined to earn her master’s degree in athletic administration.
“I knew I needed to be ready if the opportunity presented itself to step into that role,” she said of the athletic director position.
In 1995, the spot opened up, and Culler took on what she said were two full-time positions, which was difficult to balance at times. Her worst coaching records come from her first stint as A.D.
She stepped down from the AD position in 2001 to focus on coaching, a job that helps her blend her burden to help college students with their faith and her passion for athletics.
“It’s an opportunity for me to stay in a competitive environment and be able to try to help student-athletes get stronger in their faith rather than leave it by the wayside,” Culler said. “That’s really an awesome opportunity that I’ve been given. Not everybody gets the opportunity to incorporate what they do every day with their passion.”
Culler said speaking about her faith with her team is an area she’s improved on as time throughout her career. She views the role of student-athlete as the chance to use a platform for Christ, one she said she wished she’d used more as a college student.
“Coaching is getting to spend time with kids and trying to make an impact in their lives,” Culler said. “I get to help kids do things the way I wish I would have done when I was their age.”
She said colleges’ commitment to spiritual development is a rare aspect of Christian universities but one that HU is intentional about.
“That’s what excites me about Huntington University,” she said.
She continued to work in the athletic department from 2001 to 2009 as the sports information director. When the athletic director was let go in 2009, the university approached Culler to serve as interim AD for a year.
“And I said, ‘Sure, I’d be willing to help the institution in that way,’” Culler said. “Well, then a year become another year and another year, and they eventually took the interim part off.”
In her second stretch at the A.D. helm, the athletic department added Russ Lawson as coordinator for recreational programming and assistant for auxiliary athletic services Mike Frame, freeing up some of Culler’s responsibilities.
A perfectionist, Culler, admits there are days when it’s a balancing act to give each role the time they deserve. She sets goals, like dedicating the last two hours of her office time to prepare for practice each day, to help prioritize.
“I’ve been doing it long enough that I can wing it and through it together in five minutes, but it might not be as meaningful as it might be,” she said.
Joanne Green, assistant women’s basketball coach and sports information director, has been on Culler’s staff for 22 seasons. Before that, she played four seasons as a Forester. Green said Culler is able to serve both responsibilities because she’s detailed-orientated, organized and thorough.
Culler’s accolades tell a success story, in spite of the demands of her roles. Her three-decade tenure is highlighted by six NAIA National Tournament trips, seven conference titles and nine conference coach of the year awards. She was inducted into the HU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006.
Culler said she’s always wanted to excel in every area she pursues. Lois, her mother, echoed the claim and said she isn’t surprised she’s so dedicated to the Foresters because she follows her passion.
“She was always such a great achiever,” she said. “ When she set her mind to something, she always achieved it.”
Lois said athletics were a priority for her daughter growing up. Culler once cried as a child at Christmas when her brother received a basketball for a gift, while she got a doll. While her love of competition help Culler succeed, Lois said her daughter’s greatest gift to the team is the way she lives her life.
“She’s a great Christian example for young people,” Lois said.
At the end of her career, Culler said that’s how she wants her legacy to be considered, one that pointed others to Christ.
“And I hope people remember me as somebody who cared for her players and their well-being, just not as basketball players.”
Green said, notwithstanding Culler’s success over the years, her most important quality is what she does off the court. That’s how she’ll be remembered.
“She cares about her players,” Green said. “And she works extremely hard to create an environment that puts Christ at the center of the program.”