January 25, 2012

End of Trail for Papa Bear

BSU AD Harper Set to Retire after 21 Years at College’s Athletic Helm

By Jim Fenton, The Enterprise (Brockton)

BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- When he was hired as the director of athletics at Bridgewater State University in 1991, John Harper didn’t envision it being his last job.

The 1971 Ithaca College graduate was hoping to one day return to his alma mater in his native state of New York and head the Bombers’ athletic department.

“I was going to be here five years,’’ said Harper, “and move on.’’

Five years, though, turned into two decades, and Harper and his wife, Ann, never did make it to Ithaca.

Instead, Harper found a home at Bridgewater State where he is in his 21st year as the Bears’ athletic director.

“It’s been a great fit,’’ said Harper.

“Obviously, things worked out for a reason.’’

Under Harper’s leadership, the Bridgewater State athletics program has flourished with attractive facilities and competitive teams, making the Bears among the leaders in the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference.

The successful run that Harper has had at BSU, though, will come to an end on July 31 when he retires.

“There are an awful lot of memories,’’ said Harper. “The facilities are great, the location is great. But it’s the people who have made this great. It’s the people who were here when I got here and who came in after that. They’re the reasons why you succeed and have great memories.

“And it’s the student-athletes. That’s what you do it for. Once in a while, I get a note from one of them, like a player on the 1994 softball team or a nice email from someone on the 1997-98 men’s basketball team just thanking you for making their experience such a good one for them. That’s what you do it for.’’

Harper has done plenty since arriving at Bridgewater State from Wichita State in ’91.

The Bears’ program was struggling and looking for a full-time athletics director after the position was held by two staffers on an interim basis.

Harper had worked at Missouri State (1974-82) and George Washington (1982-87) before moving to Wichita State in 1987. For two years in a row, the Bridgewater State opening had been posted and Harper considered applying, but he had been promoted to associate AD at Wichita State.

“My wife and I had talked about the fact we had always wanted to come to New England to live,’’ said Harper, “but the first time we said, ‘Ah, we’ll let it go.’ “Then the job came open again the following year and we thought, maybe there’s just something right about this.

The third time was the charm for me and, hopefully, it was for the institution.’’

Harper did his research about Bridgewater State, a school he knew nothing about, and came to Massachusetts to interview for the job. He was impressed with the potential the school’s program had.

He read a quote from Bears’ long-time football coach Pete Mazzaferro talking about how players are expected to be “students first,’’ and, said Harper, “I thought, if the football coach can be on record saying that, it might be a good fit.’’

He also visited former Bridgewater State baseball coach Glenn Tufts at Legion Field, who told Harper, ‘This place is a sleeping giant. It just needs leadership.’ And he was right. It was a sleeping giant.’’

With Harper as the AD, the Bridgewater State softball team finished second in the NCAA Div. 3 tournament in 1994 and the baseball team was third in the nationals in 1996. The men’s basketball team reached the Sweet 16 in 2009, and there have been several All-America performers.

Bridgewater State has won the Smith Cup, which goes annually to the top MASCAC program, 10 times in Harper’s years at the school after earning it once the previous 19 years.

Alumni Park for the baseball and softball teams has been around since 1996.

Six years later, the Adrian Tinsley Center, which houses the basketball and volleyball courts, a fitness center and the athletics office, opened, and a $4.7 million renovation of Swenson Field for the football and track teams was completed in 2010.

There has been a dramatic shift in athletics for the good since Harper arrived 21 years ago in terms of facilities and the competition level, and he has been the leader of getting it all accomplished.

“I think I happened to come in at the right time,’’ said Harper. “We all wanted the same thing. In many regards, we were all pulling in the right direction. It sure worked out well.’’