From athlete to coach to director, Brian “Rudy” Fuller, has left his mark on the institutions he has served at and continues to do so as he steps into the role of Penn's interim athletic director after M. Grace Calhoun's departure for Brown.
Fuller describes soccer as his first love; a thread that began in his childhood and continued into the rest of his life. In fact, Fuller gets his name from German soccer player Rudi Völler. What started out as a fun nickname as a young teenager stuck with Fuller permanently.
“I was in eighth grade, my coach had recently come over from Germany, and we had three Brians on our team,” Fuller said. “At the time, the star of the German National Team was a gentleman by the name of Rudi Völler. Trust me, I was not a star on my club team, but for him to be able to differentiate between the three of us, he started calling me Rudy, one of the Brians just Brian, and the other Brian by his last name. It's amazing to me that it has stuck and the way it kind of took on a life of its own.”
Beyond playing on the field, Fuller has always loved sharing his sport with younger generations. He coached youth club teams and the Olympic Development Program throughout college.
“I enjoyed working with young kids, passing on that passion, and creating an environment that would develop their joy and love for the game,” Fuller said. “But at the time, it wasn't a common career path. So, I really always saw it as an opportunity to continue giving back and continuing to coach while pursuing a full-time profession in some other area.”
The opportunity to pursue coaching professionally fell on Fuller’s lap almost unexpectedly. He received his first professional coaching job while he was still pursuing his undergraduate business degree from Georgetown.
For Fuller, the transition from being a teammate in the locker room to a member of the coaching staff was challenging. However, he used the strong role models in his own life as a guide for how to develop himself as a coach.
“During my junior year of college, my coach at the time had found out that our program at my alma mater was going to be funding a full-time assistant coaching position,” Fuller said. “To my complete surprise, and shock, he approached me about taking on that position and becoming his assistant coach after graduation, which was still a year away. And that was the opportunity that I was looking for. I really never looked back; I've thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities I've been presented since that time.”
After serving as assistant coach at Georgetown from 1993-98, Fuller was hired as head coach at Penn. He took on the program at one of its lowest points in history — it had just one winning season in the 13 years prior to his arrival.
However, he was able to transform the program into one of prestige. He led the team to seven Philadelphia Soccer Six Championships and three Ivy League Titles. Five of his players were drafted by Major League Soccer and 23 earned first-team All-Ivy honors.
Fuller attributes this dramatic shift in the team’s performance to the quality of his assistant coaching staff in his early years as well as Penn’s history of athletic excellence. He sold Penn’s story to prospective athletes as an opportunity to help return Penn’s soccer program to its successful ways of the past.
“You have a great deal to offer a young person and their family when you talk about the Ivy League, the quality of the education, and the location in the city of Philadelphia,” Fuller said. “It's a program that had been around for 85 years at that point. For most of those 85 years, it was one of the top programs in the country. It had a rich history of success and an incredible tradition to it.”
Coaching wasn’t the only part of Fuller’s life at Penn. While coaching at Georgetown, Fuller was working on his MBA. However, he had to leave the MBA program to take the head coaching job at Penn.
After getting a few years of coaching at Penn under his belt, Fuller decided to complete his degree by taking night classes at Villanova. The most recent phase in Fuller’s academic journey was enrolling in Penn’s organizational dynamics program, which he graduated from last spring.
“Thankfully, my family, my wife, and three kids were very supportive, because it required sacrifice from everybody,” Fuller said. “It is challenging because you're obviously working full time during the day, and then you have classes and you’re trying to get schoolwork done at night. But it's very rewarding to, in the end, be a graduate of an institution of Penn's caliber.”
Another one of Fuller’s missions at Penn was to make service a large part of the soccer program. His teams worked with organizations such as the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, Grassroots Soccer, Junior Diabetes Research, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Philadelphia.
“When young folks are working with a Penn basketball player or a Penn baseball player, to them, they are like Major League Baseball players or NBA basketball players,” Fuller said. “Our kids and teams can have such an impact in the lives of young people. And I think it's our responsibility to make that impact.”
Fuller’s tie to the community has only gotten stronger as he raised his children in the Philadelphia area.
“I met my wife the first week of college and we were good friends throughout college,” Fuller said. “We went on our first date the year after we graduated, dated for a couple of years, and then we got married. All three of my kids are born in Philadelphia and they are die-hard Philly fans, born and raised. Some of my friends from home who are Washington [Football Team] fans might have a problem with that, but it is what it is.”
This past year, following the protests last summer and heightened awareness about racial justice, Fuller’s commitment to service has taken on new avenues. Fuller has spent the past year reflecting on and educating himself about how he can be a better ally for marginalized communities.
“Like so many others, what we witnessed over this past year with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and so many others, really opened my eyes,” Fuller said. “It forced me to do a lot of self-reflection, but also a lot of self-education. I did a lot of reading, podcasts, movies, and videos. I still feel like I have a way to go, but I feel like it's very important that people actively take part in these initiatives.”
Fuller has been using his social media platforms, especially Twitter, to post informational content surrounding Black History Month, racial equity in sports, anti-Jewish hatred, as well as other social justice issues. For Fuller, this advocacy has tangible impacts at Penn.
“Sports is an area that brings people together,” Fuller said. “People from all different backgrounds and all different walks of life come together and work together for the common goal and become one. I am going to continue to work to educate myself, but also working with others to make sure we have a division, and we have a community at Penn that is truly inclusive and is supporting everybody equally.”
After 20 years as head coach of the Penn men’s soccer program, Fuller moved into administration, serving as special advisor to the athletic director and member of the Division's Senior Leadership Team, acting as a liaison between coaching staff and administration. He has served as senior associate athletic director for the past three years.
Fuller feels that the knowledge he gained in Penn’s organizational dynamics program has been especially formative to his administrative work. However, the hardest part of taking on his administrative roles was missing the meaningful relationships that he formed with the student-athletes whom he coached.
“There is nothing that can mimic or take the place of a relationship between a coach and a player,” Fuller said. “I have some really good relationships with some of our student-athletes, but it's nothing like the relationship they have with their coach.”
Since he is no longer out on the field coaching, Fuller has to make a special effort to be involved in the holistic development of student-athletes.
“It's so important for a leader to remain connected to the front lines,” Fuller said. “I really try to build a relationship with the teams that I directly oversee and that means I’m traveling with them on occasion, attending as many games as I can, being present on the sideline, and being a part of their competitive experience, the wins and the losses.”
As Fuller assumes his new role as interim athletic director, his priority is facilitating a smooth transition back to in person competition as well as laying a foundation for fall sports. He hopes to maintain stability and the department’s current initiatives until new leadership is identified.
“Dr. Calhoun deserves a great deal of credit, because I think she really did focus on building the human capital within Penn athletics and focusing on the people,” Fuller said. “We have a really deep, talented organization right now. Once Dr. Calhoun departs, I don't think we're going to miss a beat because we have outstanding people in the right roles, and we work very well together.”
While Fuller has not yet thought about who will step into the full-time position of Athletic Director and whether he intends to submit himself for consideration, he said that the future athletic director must stay grounded in the student-athlete experience.
“It's going to be really important for whoever steps into the role that Dr. Calhoun vacates to find a way to stay connected to the student-athletes,” Fuller said. “Regardless of the role I'm in, as we look to next year, when we return to fall sports and we have what everybody is hoping is a more normal year, I intend to continue to be very visible and present with our teams, our student-athletes, and our coaches, because that's why we're all in it.”
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