Fran McCullin helped form a circle of people from both Manchester Valley and Westminster high school tennis teams, and the longtime Owls coach made the traditional pre-match announcements.
McCullin stood on the court with players and fellow coaches, read the starting lineups from each team, and was about to break the link to gather his team when assistant Scott Warner made him stay for a few more moments.
Wednesday’s match was the regular-season finale, and McCullin’s last with Westminster. The longtime coach and math teacher is retiring at the end of the school year after spending 37 years leading the Owls.
McCullin began his coaching career at Liberty before coming to Westminster, where he coached boys soccer for 34 years and tennis since 1985.
“Words cannot express the impact that Coach McCullin has made on the student-athletes and coaches not only here in Westminster but across the state of Maryland,” Warner said. “We thank his family for sharing their husband and dad with us for all these years. Coach McCullin will never know the impact he has had on all the lives he has touched.”
McCullin received applause from the people inside Westminster’s tennis courts as well as those who lined the fence to listen and watch. There wasn’t much time for a speech, so McCullin so simply replied with, “Let’s play some tennis.”
That’s where he felt at home, anyway, when he wasn’t teaching math at West Middle School or spending time with a family that includes six grandchildren under the age of 6.
“Forty years goes fast,” said McCullin, who has 427 career wins and led Westminster’s boys team to recent Carroll County titles in 2013, 2014, and 2015. McCullin also guided a girls doubles team, Alissa Thayer and Melissa Wallace, to a state championship in 2005.
“I knew at the end of [the 2019-20 school year] that this was going to be my last year,” McCullin said. “So you have some time to kind of prepare yourself. But ... I just knew that it would become increasing harder to do it right, devote the time that you need to in both teaching and coaching.”
He also led Westminster to a few team district titles along the way, and has spent more than the last decade on the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association’s state tennis committee. McCullin outlasted three other pillars of Carroll’s high school tennis scene ― Warner mentioned former longtime county coaches Jim Carnes of South Carroll, Bruce Damasio of Liberty, and John Lynam of North Carroll, and added McCullin’s name on the “Mt. Rushmore.”
McCullin served as Damasio’s assistant at Liberty from 1982-84 (he also coached boys soccer there) before coming to Westminster and taking over the tennis program. He reached 400 career wins during the 2015 season, when he shared Times Boys Tennis Coach of the Year honors.
The Owls went 12-2 that season, and were 40-3 over the three-year stretch at the time. McCullin said it was nice to end a non-losing skid in 2019, but not getting to play in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic was tough for him.
Play and practice, he said.
“The matches and games are for the kids to show what they can do. Practices were always my time to teach the game,” McCullin said.
Owls girls coach Jen Ruppert, who played for McCullin and has coached with him for six years, said Wednesday’s atmosphere was “surreal.”
“It doesn’t feel like it should be happening,” she said. “He’s still my coach in my mind.”
Westminster had signs adorning the tennis court fences in support of its seniors on Senior Day, right next to a few for their outgoing coach. Two cakes were sliced and handed out to coaches and players who weren’t competing at the time as McCullin patrolled the sideline and watched the boys matches (Manchester Valley won 3-2 on the boys side).
Owls athletic director Terry Molloy and principal John Baugher stopped by to wish McCullin well, along with schools superintendent Steve Lockard, a former doubles player for the longtime coach.
McCullin isn’t done just yet, with sectional, regional, and state tennis tournaments on the schedule over the next two-plus weeks. But he has an end in sight, much to the sadness of many around the county.
“I will truly miss having Fran coaching in the county,” longtime Liberty coach Tim Brecker said via email. “He is a classy and respected coach and someone that I looked to as a mentor as a young coach. ... Fran’s service not only to the county, but as a state committee member, will be sorely missed.”