Dean Ehlers, who directed James Madison University's athletics department for 22 years, was inducted into the school's sports hall of fame April 18, 1997.
An outstanding athletic program that continues to improve was developed during Ehlers' 22 years at JMU. When he assumed his position in 1971, the university had no football program, few athletic facilities, no conference affiliation and no athletic grants-in-aid. Today JMU has a well-rounded and widely recognized 27-sport program that competes at the Division I level, offers grants-in-aid in most of its sports and utilizes outstanding facilities.
JMU annually has one of the better overall athletics programs in Virginia and in the Colonial Athletic Association where most of its teams compete. That compares to a program that at Ehlers' arrival in Harrisonburg was little more than club level in many respects, particularly among its men's teams.
JMU moved most of its sports to the Division I level for the 1976-77 academic year, Ehlers' sixth year with the program, and began the move to Division I in football during the 1978 season. JMU's men's basketball team won games in three straight NCAA Tournaments from 1981-83, and its women's basketball team advanced to NCAA play five times from 1986-91, winning at least one tournament game each time, beating two No. 1 regional seeds and reaching the "Sweet 16" four times.
The Dukes' 1983 baseball team remains the only Virginia squad to play in the College World Series; JMU's football team has made four NCAA playoff appearances; the university has won national championships in archery and field hockey; it has nationally ranked programs in men's and women's soccer; and its swimming and diving programs have dominated CAA competition in the 1990s.
Ehlers coached JMU's men's basketball team to a 16-7 record in 1971-72 and coached men's cross country during the 1972-74 seasons. He was Virginia College Athletic Association coach of the year in 1974 when the Dukes won the state title.
Ehlers served on the Eastern College Athletic Conference executive committee, the ECAC baseball committee, the NCAA basketball rules committee, the NCAA Division I women's basketball committee, the JMU Foundation board of directors and the administrative board of his church. He was president of the ECAC South, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, the Rockingham Heart Association and Greater Madison, Inc.
He was president during the founding of the CAA, and the conference established the Dean Ehlers Leadership Award in recognition of his career contributions to intercollegiate athletics. The annual award recognizes male and female basketball student-athletes who "Embody the highest standards of leadership, integrity, and sportsmanship through their academic and athletic achievements."
Ehlers worked at the University of Memphis as an assistant basketball coach and head baseball coach from 1956-62. While head basketball coach there from 1962-66 his teams compiled a 53-47 record. He was the first full-time athletic director for the Memphis city school system from 1966-71.
A graduate of Campbell Hill (Ill.) Community High School, he was the leading basketball scorer in Illinois and all-state as a senior, and he has been inducted into the state's basketball hall of fame as a player.
He earned his B.S. degree from Central Methodist (Mo.) College, was a four-time first-team all-conference choice, was a Little All-America choice, and was inducted into Central Methodist's Athletic Hall of Fame. He received his M.Ed. from Missouri.
Ehlers played six seasons of professional baseball in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and was in the U.S. Army from 1951-53. During his service career, he was a two-year starter in baseball and basketball. The basketball team reached the All-Army final both years, and the baseball team won the National Baseball Congress Championship in 1953 after finishing second in 1952.
Ehlers and his wife, Joanne, have four children.