Column: Thank you, GVSU club rugby and coach John Mullett
Lanthorn writer Louis Ricard reflects on his four years with GVSU club rugby
At the end of every season, each Grand Valley State club team is required to fill out two surveys for the GVSU club sports department. One of them involves the club itself while the other asks questions regarding the coaching staff.
One of the questions asked, “Do you have any comments or feedback for your coach?” I paused for a second, because I knew that I needed to think about the four years I had spent with John Mullett, head coach and co-founder of the Grand Valley State University men’s rugby team.
Mullet has been coaching at GVSU for over 20 years now, almost as many as I have lived. He has seen and experienced almost everything in his time with the club. However, there is one thing that he never experienced until this fall season.
The 2017 GVSU men’s rugby team has gone further this season than any team in the program’s history, ranking in the top eight in the nation this year. I am not sure if Mullett predicted it, but after four years under his wing, I can’t say I’ve ever seen him surprised by anything.
I’ll always remember my first encounter with Mullett and the team. I came in as a freshman along with 10 other guys who, like me, were looking for a way to fit in. I just remembered thinking how big everyone looked. I truly thought I had no shot at making the team, but none of them discouraged me.
Everyone I talked to that day had a friendly attitude, showing me around, helping me remember names and nicknames of my new teammates. Forget practice, this was a welcoming party. Well, at least until Mullett showed up. Once he arrived, the talk slowly died, leaving him room to do what he pleased with the group he had in front of him.
“All the new guys come behind me, all returners stay where you are,” Mullet said. Bodies moved around quickly, especially our young group of newcomers. “Say where you’re from, your grade and what position you play.”
Of course I found myself at the end of the line, anxiously waiting for my turn. Once it finally got to me, I tried to be as concise as possible, hoping we’d move onto something else if I nailed my presentation.
“Um, my name is Louis, I’m a freshman, and I’m from France,” I said, nervously looking at Mullett. His face changed from a serious demeanor to a smirk and he replied, “Oooooh, we got us a Frenchie, boys!” Everyone started laughing, and practice finally started.
That short moment made me feel right at home just after the first week of practice, knowing that this would be my family for the next four years. I played with a lot of people, some leaving us and some joining us, but Mullett kept coming day after day to make sure his ship was sailing in the right direction.
I did not quite understand the dynamic of the team at first, as practices were intense but loose at the same time. That system worked beyond belief though, as we won our conference all four years, clinching a playoff berth three out of the four.
Mullett knew what we needed. “We play smart rugby,” he always said. “There is no need to be flashy or try new things. We have a gameplan that works, so stick to it.”
Not only did we stick to it, but we excelled at it. None of us placed our personal need over the team’s, and I could not believe how everyone behaved on the sideline and on the field. People helped each other, we didn’t care who started, as long as everyone on the field wanted to help the team their own way.
That mentality stuck with us all four years, and now that my 15-year career is over, I can honestly say that I couldn’t be more thankful to end it with a handshake with Mullett. The thing that people, and even some players don’t see is the work he puts in off the field. Mullett knows everything, and he trusts his leaders to communicate with him at all times, but he cares about everyone. When entering the team in my first year, Mullett asked me if I had any plans for Thanksgiving, and if I needed a place to stay. After respectfully saying no, he came with the same question every year after that, always making sure I, along with my teammates, had everything we needed.
GVSU club sports director Eric Garvelink has always been amazed by the turn out we have during our alumni game. Our alumni are all over the country, but once a year they find their way back in the valley to play against the current team. It’s not really about playing though, but rather about remembering and acknowledging. When they’re warming up before our friendly match, Mullett will casually walk up to every single one of them, calling them by their first name, asking about their family, their jobs, and everything about their lives.
His mission is beyond rugby and beyond the success he may encounter. It’s about helping people become better and reach their full potential. In my four years under his tutorship, I’ve seen Mullett smile a lot, but never the way he does when he tells us about past teams or individuals who impacted the club forever and are doing well.
Mullett couldn’t care less about being the head coach, his mission is to keep the Grand Valley team he helped build respectable and honorable. Of course he wants us to win, which is why he brought a former New Zealand rugby superstar Lance Hohaia to help coach his beloved team. Hohaia bought in Mullett’s mission, making it his goal to give back to the sport that gave him so much.
In my four years at Grand Valley, no one influenced me more than Mullett. He taught me, along with all of my teammates, that Laker rugby is not about the individual success, but about the guys standing next to me.
For that, John Mullett, I thank you.