Family of the Year

McCullums give basketball players mother, father figures

Robert and Cheryl McCullum have been married since 1986.
Photo submitted

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

For more than three decades, Cheryl McCullum has come to know the months between fall and late spring as a time her husband might not be coming home every night.

She doesn’t worry, though. Her husband is Robert McCullum, head coach of the men’s basketball team at FAMU. When her busy schedule allows or if she simply feels the urge to, she is right there with him when he takes the Rattlers on the road to out-of-town games.

Whether she is at a road game or not, she remains an ardent supporter of her husband.

“This is a commitment,” Cheryl McCullum said. “I try to be as supportive as possible in making his day as seamless as possible because his job is 24/7.”

Coach McCullum reciprocates for her patience during the long season.

“With that in mind,” he said, “when basketball season ends it’s far more important that I spend a lot of time with my wife.”

The McCullums have been a couple for 37 years, married the last 36. The nature of coach McCullum’s job has caused them to move several times since he took his first coaching job outside of the South at Southern Illinois, where he was an assistant coach.

Along the way they have raised two children who are now grown with professional careers in Alabama and Illinois. They’ve also been a mother and father figure for thousands of young men, exemplifying the qualities that make them the Capital Outlook’s choice for Family of the Year. They share the distinction with Dr. Edward and Pamela Scott.

Since her husband became head coach at FAMU in 2017, Cheryl McCullum has been retired. When he left the University of Oregon, she gave up the job she had there in the Center on Diversity and Community as manager of the Division of Equity and Inclusion.

But there is no time to be idle in retirement. A devout Christian with a bachelor’s degree in Christian Studies, Cheryl McCullum is a leader in Bible Study Fellowship International. She has been involved with the prayer group that meets on Tuesdays since 2001, holding meetings virtually since the pandemic outbreak in 2020. 

She also participates in the weekday prayer ministry and Wednesday Bible Study at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Since the pandemic, she and coach McCullum attend virtual Sunday services.

Cheryl McCullum doesn’t miss an opportunity to recruit members to her prayer group. Charlotte Westle is one of her early recruits who has become a best friend. They met in 1996 when she was hired by Westle to fill an administrative assistant job with the United Way in Champaign, Ill., where her husband was an assistant coach at Illinois.

Their first meeting lasted nearly two hours as both women talked about the things they had in common, particularly having husbands who moved around with their jobs. Westle’s husband was in the Air Force at the time.

Both women became the chefs during basketball season when coach McCullum invited his players to spend Thanksgiving at their home. Their friendship blossomed into a sisterhood and they’ve had several reunions.

Every get-together was another opportunity for Westle to see how much the couple values family.

“They are a couple that has similar strong values,” Westle said. “They both believe that family is at the core and what they do for their family they want to do for others. Serving is a big thing for both of them. 

“They don’t just want to be there to support their family but they want to be there to support others.”

Others who know them said it has been that way since they first were introduced by a mutual friend in 1985 at a basketball event in her hometown, Lexington, Ky. Since then, coach McCullum has made 11 career stops before coming to FAMU.

Lexington, Ky., is also where McCullum established a friendship with Leonard Hamilton, head coach at FSU. They met 40 years ago when Hamilton invited McCullum to assist with a camp at the University of Kentucky, where he was an assistant coach.

He also knew Cheryl McCullum, who worked at the radio station that carried Kentucky’s basketball games. Over the years Hamilton continued to help McCullum’s career when he could, even recommending him for the FAMU job.

McCullum, who was named MEAC Coach of the Year last season, had the Rattlers on their first seven-game win streak under his watch up until last weekend.

“We all should be thankful that we have him in our community,” Hamilton said. “Not only is he an excellent basketball coach, he is a great father-figure. He is a great leader, husband, father, outstanding coach and a tremendous mentor for young people.”

The role that Cheryl McCullum has taken on as a basketball mom and wife gives her husband the balance every coach needs, Hamilton said.

“She understands, loves what he does (and) she’s a big basketball fan,” he said. “She understands motherhood and also understands fatherhood. One of the reasons he’s been able to do such a good job is because they are in it together.”

Coach McCullum credits his wife for helping him cope when job changes happened and even when his team is enduring a tough season. A daily scripture that his wife sends to him is something that he cherishes, he said.

His children also shoot him a text when his team is enduring challenging times.

Coaching wasn’t the first job that McCullum had after graduating from Seminole Community College in Sanford and later from Birmingham Southern College in Alabama. A Birmingham, Ala., native, McCullum was a teacher at Council Junior High School and later at Ramsay High School.

He eventually began coaching boy’s and girl’s basketball, track and girl’s volleyball. An opportunity to be a graduate assistant at Kansas State University was the first step on his current path.

Along the way, he experienced highs and lows. But nothing hit him as hard as seeing one of his players succumb to cancer in 2005 while he was an assistant coach at the University of South Florida, McCullum said.

It was one of the few times that McCullum took his work home. Otherwise he is steadfast about the rule he set for himself.

“Whatever is taking place with family, I don’t take it to work, and whatever is going on at work, I don’t bring it home,” he said. “That’s something that has served me very, very well. That has sustained me over the years.”

So have the relationships he established with his players. Some invite him to their weddings and others want to make time for him to meet their children.

He and his wife treat every player like their own and in some cases have long relationships with them and their parents.

“You don’t like seeing them leave, but you understand that’s the next step in their lives,” coach McCullum said. “You just hope that you’ve run your program in such a way that it helped prepare them for those next set of challenges ahead.”

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