Just seven years after graduating from Wittenberg University, where he enjoyed a record-breaking career as a member of the Tiger men’s basketball team, Chris Sullivan is making a name for himself as an up-and-coming young coach in men’s collegiate basketball.
Successfully transitioning from player to coach, Sullivan, class of 2011, is the associate head men’s basketball coach at Denison University, where he helped coach the program to its first conference tournament championship in 2016. That, along with a string of other accomplishments for the program, got the attention of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), which named Sullivan among the 2016-2017 Under Armour 30-Under-30 honorees.
Sullivan says he has been lucky to have a lot of experiences in his seven seasons with Denison.
"In my first year, we took an up-and-down team to the NCAC Championship game for the first time in school history, had a few seasons right around .500, but have now built the program to a place where we're setting a new standard of success for the program,” he said. “I've been fortunate to coach young men who have won an NCAC Tournament Championship, played in the NCAA Tournament, and garnered a top-25 national ranking for the majority of a season."
As a student, Sullivan knew he wanted a career in the sports business, so he created a self-designed major in sport management several years before the university offered an official major. Not knowing exactly where his major would take him, he had a glimpse of his future when an injury in his junior year allowed him a look inside coaching.
"During my junior year, I played about the last month of the season with a stress fracture in my back, which really limited my practice time and then sidelined me for 12 weeks as soon as the season ended,” he said. “I became involved with the coaching staff, which brought me into their huddle and allowed me to help directly with the scouting reports, practice adjustments, and encouraged me to be more vocal on the sideline as a leader.
“Through that experience, I really started to fall in love with…the mental side of playing basketball, and it just felt natural to lead people in that way,” he continued. “As soon as I realized I could get paid to teach basketball for a living, I was all in."
From Upper Arlington, Ohio, Sullivan comes from a family that is passionate about basketball.
“My dad played in a D3 Final Four in the early 80s, my brother Kevin played at DePauw and now coaches at Emory University in Atlanta, and my other brother Brian played at Davidson and now plays professionally with stops in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Australia."
Named an All American in his senior season, Sullivan was also involved with the university’s sports information department and Tiger Sports Network. He worked in the press box, offering color commentary for most of the men's soccer and softball games his last two years and had a hand in other projects within the athletics department.
"I helped update and redesign the Men's Basketball Historical Record Book my senior year, which was a fun project and great way for me to really get to know the incredible tradition that the Wittenberg basketball program has held for decades," he said.
Sullivan said it was odd to come back to Wittenberg the first few years and coach against his friends, but now he includes playing against his alma mater as some of his favorite games of the season because of the memories he has at Wittenberg.
"Being older and a little more removed now, I love going back,” he said. “Driving up to campus, walking into the HPER and onto the court brings back incredible memories for me... During the long, cold mid-season days of January and February, coming back to Wittenberg always serves to re-energize my passion and provide incredible feelings of gratitude for both the past and the future."
The relationships Sullivan built at Wittenberg have proved to be strong post-graduation, too. At his recent wedding to Kellen Morrissey, class of 2013, six Wittenberg alumni were in the bridal party alone, and many more – from teammates, coaches, administrators, and faculty – were in attendance.
"At Wittenberg, I was constantly surrounded by people who brought the best out of me,” he said. “I was pushed by teammates, both challenged and supported by friends, and mentored by faculty and staff….Wittenberg is still shaping my life both personally and professionally, and I am extremely grateful for it."
-By Devon Atchison '19, Office of University Communications