Behind the Rise of Tufts Athletics

During 16 years as director of the program, Bill Gehling, A74, G79, helped make it one of the most successful in Division III college sports
Bill Gehling and other coaches at a softball game
Bill Gehling and, from left, women’s soccer coach Martha Whiting and volleyball coach Cora Thompson support the softball team on May 15 at the NCAA super regional semifinal at Spicer Field. Photo: Kelvin Ma
June 11, 2015

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During his 16-year tenure as director of athletics, Bill Gehling, A74, G79, has seen the construction of new facilities, multiple NCAA championships won by teams and individuals and the expanded reach of the program. A year ago, he announced that he would be stepping down, and soon received an unexpected gift that brought his 45-year career with Tufts Athletics full circle.

Gehling had come to Tufts in 1970 to play soccer for coach Herb Erickson. Part of a great era for the team, Gehling held the program’s all-time scoring record until 1999. This past fall, Tufts men’s soccer made a miracle run to win their first-ever NCAA title, an accomplishment doubling as a tip of the cap to the AD in his final year.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have found a place as an undergraduate that was such a great fit, and then to have opportunities open up which allowed me to grow here,” Gehling says. “For the sport that I played to have this amazing run in the final year was extra special.”

From Cold Spring Harbor, New York, Gehling arrived at Tufts during a time of turmoil on college campuses. He immediately bonded with his teammates, and Erickson molded them into a group that went on to win four consecutive Greater Boston League championships.

One of eight members of his family to attend Tufts, Gehling majored in child studies and sang with the Beelzebubs. After graduating in 1974, he stayed involved as a volunteer assistant coach with the men’s soccer team. He was working as a teacher when a chance meeting on Powder House Boulevard changed the path of his career.

That’s when he ran into John White, Tufts men’s basketball coach at the time, who mentioned that the university was starting a women’s soccer program. Though he hadn’t thought of coaching as a career, Gehling was interested, and in 1979 was quickly hired by athletics director Rocky Carzo to lead the program.

Gehling discovered a passion for coaching with the women’s team. The sport was at its beginning after Title IX had been signed into law in 1972, requiring equal opportunity in athletics. He was at the forefront of developing the sport as a male coach teaching young women to learn and love the game. He also took on the greater responsibility of helping to make a difference in the lives of young people. The team earned 165 victories in his 19 seasons, from 1979 to 1998.

“Bill was ahead of the curve as a coach with his soccer team,” says Lisa Melendy, athletics director at Williams College and former coach of the college’s women’s soccer team. “Early on they were one of the teams to beat, and that was really because of his knowledge of the game of soccer and his ability to teach it.

“Eventually it’s about the game of soccer, serving it appropriately and respecting the game,” she adds. “Bill was certainly that type of coach. For him it wasn’t about just trying to win, but trying to play the beautiful game the way it should be played.”

Intelligence, Skill and Instincts

In the meantime, Gehling’s experience as an educator and competence with computers made him a valuable administrator within the Tufts athletics department. Carzo was involved in several national and regional athletic organizations and relied on Gehling to handle leadership roles at Tufts and within the New England Small College Athletic Conference.

When Carzo retired in 1999, Gehling was promoted to director of athletics. Working in conjunction with the Athletics Board of Advisors, a group of alumni who advocate for the department, Gehling would be at the helm as athletics made a breakthrough on campus.

“My goal as athletics director was to elevate the perception of the role of athletics in the lives of these kids without making it more than it is,” Gehling says. “It’s not about trying to say that athletics is more important than academics. It’s about acknowledging that athletics is a really important part of the lives of these kids. If the adults can get together and not be competitive about our piece of it, there’s no reason these kids can’t have it all.”

Today, Tufts Athletics is one of the most successful NCAA Division III programs across the board. Jumbo teams and athletes have won 14 NCAA championships since 2010, increasing school pride. The number of Tufts athletes on the NESCAC all-academic team this spring—132—is more than that of any of the other 11 schools in the conference. Jumbo teams and athletes are actively involved in community service, including many who work with Team IMPACT to help improve the quality of life for children facing life-threatening illnesses.

“During his tenure as athletic director, Bill had the intelligence, skill and instincts to not only have picked great coaches, but also to have supported these coaches with the admissions department in accepting academically qualified and athletically talented student-athletes,” says Varney Hintlian, former chair of the Athletics Board of Advisors and current university trustee. “Great coaches and talented student-athletes have propelled Tufts to the elite ranks of the Division III NCAA.”

The Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center, the new home of Tufts Athletics, which opened in 2012, is the highlight of several facility improvements made in the last 15 years. The athletics department has also expanded its outreach with a personalized fitness program for the Tufts community and its F.I.T. pre-orientation program to promote physical and personal development to incoming freshmen.

Behind the scenes, Gehling was establishing and maintaining the strong relationships with the Tufts administration that helped make everything happen.

“The faculty and the administration very much appreciated the approach that Bill took to his job and his department,” says Jim Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Gehling’s supervisor. “People up here liked having a partner who they trusted and who understood the partnership. I think Bill has been the right person for Tufts, and we’re very proud of what he’s accomplished.”

As he moves over to 80 George Street and a new role as senior advisor to University Advancement with a focus on athletics, Gehling looks back proudly on a legacy that helped change the perception of athletics at the university.

“Athletics is respected as an integral part of the university in a way it never was before,” he says. “For prospective students who are great athletes and great students, Tufts is now on the short list of schools they consider.”

Paul Sweeney, Tufts’ sports information director, can be reached at paul.sweeney@tufts.edu.

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