By Jen Toland, College Beat Writer
December 17, 2014
Worcester, MA --- The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston made the perfect choice for this year's winner of the John Baronian Award, which recognizes lifetime contributions to New England football.
Brien Cullen has happily dedicated most of his life to Worcester State football, and over the last three decades has coached, mentored, tutored and nurtured hundreds of players who have gone through the program.
"You can tell he lives for the sport of football, and our team is like a family to him," senior tight end Casey Hippert of Douglas said. "He's kind of like the mayor around Worcester State. He knows everyone, he talks to everyone, and it really is something special to see what he's done at the university."
Cullen will receive his award Thursday night at the annual Gridiron Club of Greater Boston banquet at the Marriott Hotel in Burlington. Since 1997, the Gridiron Club has presented this prestigious award, named in memory of John Baronian, a Worcester native and longtime supporter of Tufts athletics, who passed away in 2008.
Former Holy Cross coach Dan Allen and former Boston College coach Jack Bicknell are among the past recipients.
The 60-year-old Cullen, the only varsity coach Worcester State has ever had, recently completed his 31st season with the Lancers. Worcester State finished 7-3 and was in contention for the MASCAC title.
"People say, 'How much longer?' and things like that," Cullen said, "but this season really invigorated me. The guys keep you young. They get the juices going."
Cullen, who grew up in Milford, graduated from Worcester State in 1977 and played four years of club football for coach Jim Girouard. After coaching high school football for six years, Cullen returned to his alma mater and took over as Lancers coach in 1983. The team won the 1984 national club championship, and Cullen saw the program through to varsity status in 1985.
Former Worcester State dean of students Paul Joseph, a founding member of the club team in 1969, was a driving force in elevating Worcester State to NCAA Division 3, where the Lancers had immediate success. They went 5-0 their first year.
Worcester State won three straight New England Football Conference titles from 1995-97, and the Lancers have won or shared the MASCAC title seven times. Worcester State has made six ECAC playoff appearances.
Cullen is a four-time NEFC Coach of the Year. In 1996, he was named Division 2-3 Coach of the Year by the New England Football Writers Association.
The Lancers have had 17 winning seasons in 29 years on the varsity level. With 166 career victories, Cullen will enter 2015 as the second winningest active coach in Division 3 New England, behind only Springfield's Mike Delong, who has 197.
Cullen does it on a "part-time" basis, but with full-time devotion. For the last 30 years, he spent his days teaching at Douglas High School, late afternoons leading Lancers practice, and evenings continuing the week's preparation.
Cullen retired from his position at Douglas last year, but continues to teach as an adjunct professor at Worcester State. Hippert took his Health and Physical Education for Teachers course this semester and said Cullen is as enthusiastic in the classroom as he is on the field. Cullen is teaching a Principles of Coaching class next semester.
"It's a nice balance," he said, "and I'm really enjoying it."
Cullen has coached some excellent players through the years — record-setters like John Smith, Greg Wood, Cean Oksanish, Kevin Gniadek, Bryan Keats, Jeremy Frisch, Chris Butts, Scott Holland, Russ Watson — the list goes on.
Many Cullen coached went on to follow in his footsteps.
Among them are Tony Reno (Yale), Pat Haverty (Fitchburg State), Sean Mahoney (Marlboro High) and Dan Walker (Fitchburg High).
"Playing for Brien was awesome," Walker said. "He cares a lot about his players. He has a passion for football and teaching that he passes down to his players, and he definitely motivated me to want to coach and help kids. He's given a lot of kids second chances and has always been there for kids after they graduated. He's just the type of coach you want to play for."
Some of Cullen's more memorable games were the 1984 national club championship, the 1996 ECAC Northeast Bowl, when the Lancers' second-half rally came up just short against Ithaca, the 2001 ECAC Northeast Bowl, when Worcester State scored 19 unanswered points in seven minutes to beat Curry, and more recently, last year's shootout victory over Mass. Maritime, and this year's last-second 52-49 win over Western Connecticut.
"People ask you what the best part of the job is," Cullen said, "and it's the guys — being with them. And it goes beyond the coaching — there's recruiting and meeting different people and telling them about Worcester State, which has progressed and grown tremendously in the last few years.
"When we started football as club and went to varsity, we tried to build it up and make it competitive," Cullen said. "Throughout the years, it has been pretty competitive, and we're still trying to make it better every day."
Milford Town Crier: "Milford Native Cullen to Receive Lifetime Award"