POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — At first, her pupils referred to her as Mrs. Coach before advancing to the moniker of Coach Momma.
Ironically, either nickname still fits — maybe more so now than ever.
What started as a way for Joann Cullen to spend more time with her husband ended up turning into something much greater as the Point Pleasant native was recently inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Cullen — who joins her husband Jack as an NWHOF inductee (2011) — was one of six members selected on behalf of the West Virginia Chapter of the NWHOF, which occurred during the 14th annual Hall of Fame Day Banquet held on October 30, 2016, at the Charleston Embassy Suites.
Cullen — a 1979 graduate of PPHS — became only the second female inductee into the NWHOF from the Mountain State by receiving the Lifetime Service to Wrestling honor for her countless efforts and contributions over an almost four-decade-long career.
Since her first season in 1980, Joann had been involved with Jack’s wrestling programs in some way, shape or form until his resignation as Point Pleasant coach in 2009. She is also still currently active in the PPHS program in smaller capacities.
She has twice served as a varsity assistant coach (1984-88 and 2003-11) and has also been the head scorer at numerous high school and middle school tournaments that range from local meets to the WVSSAC state tournament.
Cullen has also served as a volunteer coach for the Point Pleasant middle school programs and has also helped with the brackets at the WVSSAC championships.
It was those kind of contributions that allowed Cullen to join 2007 inductee Diana Archer as the only females currently in the West Virginia chapter of the NWHOF. Archer also made the plaque presentation to Cullen at the HOF Banquet.
Cullen, however, is the first female to be inducted into the NWHOF for her coaching efforts. The additional work just added to her otherwise impeccable resume.
When asked about the trying to explain the emotions of receiving such a prestigious accolade, Cullen was quick to note that such an award was truly an honor — one that she still cannot believe has happened.
She also pointed out out, with a chuckle, that it’s too late if anyone wants to change their mind.
“It’s very humbling to even be considered for such a thing as this, but I am now in a place with all of these great wrestling people that I have known and worked with for years. I never even considered that I would be a person that they would consider worthy of such an honor,” Cullen said. “I’m very grateful for the selection, but the truth is that all of this is still kind of sinking in … even though I have had a few weeks to grasp the reality of it.
“I have wondered to myself about why they decided to select me for this, but I can also tell you that I am not giving back. I am still surprised because this is something that usually goes to head coaches, but I am truly thankful for the honor that friends and peers have bestowed upon me.”
To fully understand Joann Cullen’s path to the NWHOF, you must first realize how her trailblazing journey started.
After getting married in 1980, Jack was hired as the varsity wrestling coach and started at Central Preston High School that same year. That same winter, Joann was brought in by her husband to be the wrestling cheerleader adviser for his program.
Later, as she became more familiar with what Jack expected in his program, she started taking on even more responsibilities — particularly after the family returned to the same job in Point Pleasant back in 1984.
Soon afterwards, PPHS started becoming the dynasty that it is today. But, there were also a few hiccups along the way of transitioning from cheerleading adviser to wrestling coach.
“I knew a little about wrestling when I started in 1980, but still to this day I haven’t heard of too many other teams having wrestling cheerleaders. Obviously, I never dreamed that any of this would end up where it is now,” Cullen said. “I still remember my first trip to state as an assistant coach, and most everyone — including Jack — does too.
“There was a call that I didn’t agree with and I kept arguing the call throughout the match. The referee had had enough and threw the coach out of the tournament … and I thought fine, I’ll leave. Turns out, the head coach is the first to go … so Jack had to go sit in the stands and I had to coach the remainder of the state tournament.
“That was when I learned that I had to be able to pull back as a coach and not be so emotional. Jack agreed with my complaint, but I will say I learned a lot about coaching that day. I can also tell you I never got Jack thrown out of another event again, so I did learn from it.”
Cullen is connected in some way with every single one of Point Pleasant’s 21 individual state championship winners, not to mention serving as an assistant on the 2010 and 2011 Class AA state championship teams at PPHS.
In a sport dominated by men, Cullen sees herself as someone who was simply there to benefit her school, her family and her kids.
Those things aside, things did pop up along that way that could have pushed Cullen away from the sport she so loves.
“I do see it as an elite honor being the first woman inducted as a coach, but I can also tell you that it wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t always rough, but there were times that I wasn’t very well-received as a coach in this sport,” Cullen said. “I have been told at various tournaments over the years to get back in the bleachers with the other mothers and I actually went through a spell where I had to carry my coaching card in my back pocket so that I could prove to athletic directors or tournament directors that I was supposed to be sitting in the coaching corner during matches.
“The one thing I can say through all of it was that our kids never created any trouble with me as their coach. They always stood up for Momma when someone would question why I was down on the mats with them. The kids always showed me the same amount of respect as Jack or any of the other assistants. That was a big part in why I kept getting more involved too.”
Joann mentioned that her plaque from the NWHOF is the exact same size as the one Jack received in 2011 and that she is very eager to rearrange the wall at home so that two plaques can hang equally — side-by side.
With the way this journey began, that is more than a fair trade for the Cullen family. Jack and Joann also have a son, Justin (Kiley) Cullen, and a daughter, Jordan (Tyler) Glover.
“The thing is, I wanted to be where Jack was. I didn’t want to be that wife or mother wondering how things were going or how the team did. I wanted to be there and be involved, and that is why I always ended up being there,” Cullen said. “It has become a bit of a family tradition for us. My son ended up becoming a two-time state placer and my daughter is capable of scoring three matches at the same time.
“Wrestling just became part of all of our lives and it has been a very positive thing for our family. This honor is just another plus for us in something we love dearly.”
In looking back, the one thing that Joann is proudest of is seeing how far her efforts, her husband’s efforts, and the efforts of so many other like-minded individuals have paid off in her hometown of Point Pleasant.
“Honestly, probably the best part of all of this is that a lot of this work has happened here at my alma mater of Point Pleasant. When you look back at what we have been able to do during our time at Point Pleasant, we have turned a football-basketball town into something that is known state-wide for its wrestling program from the bottom up,” Cullen said. “The program is something that we, as a family, are all very proud of. It’s become one of our premier sports with its own identity for having success. That is what makes this honor so great, knowing that it stems from what our program has been able to accomplish.”
Joann Cullen is the third representative of Point Pleasant High School to be inducted into the NWHOF, joining her husband, Jack, and current PPHS football coach Dave Darst (2014).
The other 2016 NWHOF inductees for West Virginia were Aristotle Svingos, Mike Contic, Dr. Dan Doyle, Richard Edge and Dale Slack.
Cullen and the other inductees will lead the parade of champions at the 2017 WVSSAC state championships at Big Sandy Superstore Arena later this winter.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.