Peter Mullins in his prime. The Australian Olympic decathlete, who became head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds for 20 years, died in April aged 85.
There was considerable outpouring of love and respect this past Saturday afternoon at the new UBC sports Hall of Fame when a memorial service was held for the late Peter Mullins, who died in April in Sydney at age 85.
He was one of the most helpful Australian exports to Canada one could ever remember.
Mullins was the head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds basketball team for 20 years and directed them to their last two national titles in 1970 and ’72, but it seems this was merely a small portion of what he achieved throughout his remarkable life.
To give you some idea of the respect he commanded, nearly all members of both teams were there Saturday.
For starters, he was a great, great athlete.
He finished sixth in the decathlon in the 1948 London Olympics, competing against the legendary Bob Mathias, and was basically ridiculously good at anything he tried.
Basketball wasn’t even really a sport in Australia when he was a kid, but he played some on the playgrounds and, when he got to Washington State on a track and field scholarship, the hoop coach took one look and recruited him.
He was soon the captain and later became part of the Harlem Globetrotters touring group as a member of the Washington Generals on their Asian tours — and their very first ever showing in Australia.
But none of the stories were about that Saturday. It was all about his influence on the life of so many B.C. kids he so profoundly affected with his humour, example, principles and utter lack of ego.
To illustrate the latter, Dr. Bob Hindmarch, who joined the UBC faculty in 1955, the same year as Mullins, told the story of how the Aussie would often go downtown when Rolf Harris came to Vancouver. With Mullins so well known at home from his Olympic profile, the two had become friends.
“Peter told me that one night he was sitting at the bar in the Cave and noticed the fellow beside him looked familiar. He asked the guy, ‘did you go to Washington State, did you work here or do this or that,’ trying to place him.
“Finally, the guy at the bar told him: ‘My name is Jimmy Stewart. I’m in the movies.’ Now nobody with an ego tells that story about himself.”
He had a great sense of humour which at times could be cutting.
He once said of little Gene Rizak, who played for him one year in the early 60s and was later the last coach at Vancouver College to win the high school tournament in 1967: “A training program for Gene would be bench pressing a Q-tip and then after a few weeks we would moisten the tips at each end as he made progress.”
Bruce Jagger, the manager of the most successful Birds team ever in 1970 who later went on to a tremendous career with the Royal Bank, told the story of how Mullins trusted his players to be ready for games on their own.
“One night he was coming back to the hotel around midnight with a friend and as they entered the lobby of the hotel they noticed one of the team’s stars, Bob Molinski, on his way out. When asked if he was concerned, Mullins quipped: ‘He knows what he has to do tomorrow night.’”
Said John Mills, the chairman of the Canada Basketball Board of Directors who played on the 1972 nationals winner, in his tremendous tribute: “He said he didn’t believe in bed checks because ‘no beds were ever missing.’”
Mullins’ strong stands on just about everything led to a lot of players not getting on well with him or even coming out for the team despite being on campus.
In fact, it used to be said that there were often teams that could be formed at UBC that could play the Birds even up during Mullins’ reign.
But those who did play for him generally loved him. And even those who didn’t get on well with him were represented at the service, such was the respect he commanded.
“I wasn’t Peter’s favourite player and Peter wasn’t my favourite coach,” said Ken Shields, who formerly coached Canada’s national team after winning seven national titles at UVic and will now coach the British women’s team at this year’s London Olympics.
“I played just two years here and after it was over I went into his office and said ‘look, I don’t have to play for you anymore and you don’t have to coach me anymore, let’s just forget about everything and be friends.’ He jumped up, we embraced and he said ‘Kenny, I love you for that.’”
Funny thing was, pretty much everyone who really knew Peter Mullins loved him for being just who he was, and a man can’t be anymore successful in life than that.
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