An extraordinary number of IC graduates use their expertise to help current student-athletes shine. by Michael Warwick
For nearly as long as people have been graduating from Ithaca College, Ithaca graduates have been making their mark as college coaches. While many alumni are NCAA Division I or II coaches — some of whom have led their teams to NCAA titles — others have brought their skills to help build the program at their alma mater.
The legendary Ben Light ’36, M.S. ’47, Carp Wood ’39, and Iris Carnell ’42 were early alumni coaches at Ithaca College. Their tradition continues. Ithaca’s full-time coaching staff includes 11 Ithaca graduates, with more than 20 others involved on part-time and volunteer bases. The 11 full-timers range from longtime coaches like George Valesente ’66, M.S. ’75 (baseball coach since 1978) and Mike Welch ’73 (a member of the football staff for 25 years and head coach for the past 15) to “rookies” like Matt Dorn ’07, M.S. ’08 (women’s lacrosse), and Peter Mayer ’04 (baseball and football), who are both in their first year as assistant coaches.
Jennifer Potter ’92, women’s track and field coach since 2003, is one of several IC coaches who left head coaching positions at other schools to return to her alma mater. The prospect of coaching at Ithaca was on her mind early. “My experiences as a student-athlete confirmed my desire to become a college coach, and I hoped to return to Ithaca,” says Potter, who came to Ithaca after a successful tenure as women’s track and field coach at Cortland. “While at Cortland, I never thought of leaving for any job — except this one.”
Alexandra Ivansheck ’04, M.B.A. ’05, who recently completed her second year as an assistant women’s basketball coach at IC, felt the same way about the prospect of returning to Ithaca during the time she spent on the coaching staff at William Smith. “There was never even a question of whether or not I wanted to come back to coach at Ithaca,” she says, “and it will take a very special job to lure me away.”
As IC student-athletes, Ivansheck was an all-conference selection in women’s basketball and Mayer was an all-conference selection in football. Now, as two of the younger Bombers coaches, they believe their experiences as IC student-athletes are a big help in recruiting student-athletes to Ithaca. “Being a former Bomber definitely helps establish credibility,” says Mayer. “Recruits see that I’ve come back. That means that I enjoyed my four years here and have a great passion for Ithaca College. That I was a player here and went through everything our players are going through now — all the hard work, the lifting, the running — that seems to resonate with them.”
Ivansheck agrees. “Recruits are comfortable asking me questions they might not want to ask someone else,” she says.
Once the students get here, the coaches’ personal history helps as well. “The players know that because I was a student-athlete here, I was once in their shoes,” says Ivansheck. “I know how to schedule classes, I dealt with the same professors, and I had the same worries about getting off-campus housing.”
Ithaca’s coaches strive to create a sense of family. “I knew when I was being recruited that family played a major part in the success of both programs,” says Brian Grastorf ’10, who starts for the baseball team and will serve as a football captain this fall. “Coach Welch and Coach Valesente get their players to buy into their philosophies and the importance of family within the team. When I was being recruited, both coaches explained to me how it’s different to play at Ithaca from any other school. I quickly learned how great it is to play here, and I can’t see myself playing anywhere else.”
That sense of family takes on an even more personal meaning for coaches who were already part of that family as student-athletes. “Having Ithaca graduates as coaches represents Ithaca’s great tradition as a program,” says Grastorf. “I learned from them that you play not only for yourself but also for everyone else who has ever worn an Ithaca jersey.”
Dan Robinson ’79, M.S. ’92, has been wearing an Ithaca uniform of one kind or another since he was a freshman member of men’s crew in 1975. Since graduating, he has coached both men’s and women’s crew, and he’s served as head coach of the men’s program since 1988. He says he benefited from tremendous coaching as an athlete — his coach then, Robert Tallman, was inducted into Ithaca College’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002 — and he’s still using his coach’s lessons today. “The biggest thing I learned from Robert Tallman,” says Robinson, “was to enjoy the moment and live in it. He was clearly having fun, and he left crew at the boathouse. Therefore his athletes had fun, rowed with a lot of effort, maintained a full life away from crew, and looked at the big picture.”
Robinson continues to find advantages to his nearly 35-year affiliation with IC’s crew program. “Having been here so long makes it easier to connect with alumni for our fund-raising,” explains Robinson, whose wife, Becky Metz Robinson ’88, M.S. ’94, has been head coach of the women’s crew program since 1995. “I know probably 95 percent of our crew alumni, and I find that invaluable — especially when I come up with a new way to solicit donations.”
Potter, like most Ithaca graduates who pursue a career in coaching, was a physical education major, and that gave her even more opportunity to experience the Bombers tradition as a student. “As a PE major I interacted with many of the other coaches in a class setting,” she says, “and they helped inspire my career. They all had a passion for their sports and seemed to ‘bleed Bomber blue.’ ” Potter finds connecting with former IC athletes natural, and she finds them more enthusiastic than the alumni athletes at the other schools where she has served as head coach.
Upholding Ithaca’s long-held reputation for nationally competitive teams whose members exhibit class and dignity while continuing to excel in the classroom is surely the goal of all of IC’s coaches, no matter where they went to school themselves, but for the 11 full-time coaches who wore Bombers uniforms before becoming coaches, achieving those goals takes on added significance.
“During the time I played at Ithaca,” notes Ivansheck, who helped the women’s basketball team to NCAA playoff appearances every year of her playing career, “our team was very successful. I’m proud of everything we accomplished, so to be back coach-ing in this program [gives me the chance] to build on that success and take it to an even higher level.”
And that “higher level” goal? Winning a national championship!
As a student-athlete, Potter watched the Bombers win six NCAA team championships and seven individual national titles*. She found that thrilling, and inspirational. “My ultimate goal,” Potter says, “would be to add more to that list.”
Editor’s note: Michael Warwick has been Ithaca College’s sports information director since 1998.
* National championships during Potter’s undergraduate years: football,1988 and 1991; wrestling, 1989 and 1990, women’s soccer, 1990 and 1991. Individual national titles: Amy Robinson ’91 (women’s swimming and diving, 100-yard backstroke), 1989; Amy Appler (now Hatlee) ’91 (gymnastics, floor exercise, balance beam, and all-around), 1989; Mike Fusilli ’91 (wrestling, heavyweight), 1990; Ann DelSignore ’94 (women’s track and field, indoor 5,000-meter run), 1992