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Beloved Lakers AD Joe Kimball announces retirement

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Joe Kimball, whose storied career in athletics spans more than four decades, announced today that he will retire as Mercyhurst University Athletics Director (AD) at the end of the academic year, marking nine years in the top post.

From the early days of coaching youth basketball with his wife, Heather, to helping organize the Bob Sanders Camp for Erie Youth, to coaching college football and managing two dozen varsity sports at Mercyhurst, Kimball’s life has been deeply invested in building character, confidence and discipline in young people through athletic competition.

One of eight children, Kimball’s father died when he was 10, and his mother when he was 13, so he relied on his athletic abilities to chart a future for himself. A native of Syracuse, New York, he won a scholarship to play football and to wrestle at Syracuse University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education and, later, a master of education from St. Lawrence University. 

Over the years, Kimball held a mix of academic and athletic positions. From 1984 to 1992, he was the head football coach at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where he also served as Dean of Freshmen for a year. He came to Erie to head up the Lakers football team from 1993-2002, and from there went on to hold various positions within the City of Erie School District, including principal of Strong Vincent High School. He also served as the running backs coach for Gannon University from 2006 through 2008, before returning to Mercyhurst as AD. Today, he oversees an NCAA Division II athletic department sponsoring 24 varsity sports, including Division I men’s and women’s ice hockey, with over 600 student-athletes. 

Fueled by his passion to build a family-like environment where coaches, staff and student-athletes could flourish, Kimball’s leadership has led Laker athletics to unparalleled success in the past decade.

A lifelong champion of student-athletes, Kimball has guided the Lakers’ ascent to national prominence in both NCAA Division I and Division II.  Under his direction, Mercyhurst finished in the nation’s top 25 of the Learfield Sports/NACDA Directors’ Cup standings in each of the last three years and four times overall. The Lakers 15th-place finish following the 2014-15 academic year is the best in the history of Mercyhurst athletics. The prestigious Directors’ Cup is presented annually by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), Learfield Sports and USA TODAY to the best overall collegiate athletics programs in the country.

Kimball also was instrumental in showcasing Mercyhurst and the City of Erie by securing high-profile athletic events, including the 2011 Women’s Frozen Four, the 2018 Ice Breaker Tournament and the 2021 Women’s Frozen Four.

National championships in women’s rowing, men’s lacrosse and wrestling, along with several national runners-up and numerous regional championship appearances, conference championships and individual accolades for student-athletes have cemented Mercyhurst as a formidable foe in competition.  In the classroom, the Lakers are equally competitive. Thanks to Kimball’s emphasis on academics, Mercyhurst student-athletes consistently outpace their peers in federal graduation rates and NCAA academic success rates.

“Our coaches have never just recruited athletes who could pick and score,” Kimball said. “We go after the great student-athletes because most of them will not play beyond college so, in the long run, the real competition isn’t on the field, it’s in the job market, and it’s our job to make sure they are prepared.”

Stats aside, Kimball will be remembered most as a beloved coach and administrator whose personal code, “Be honest, up front and fair,” has served him well. Last year, he was voted “Staff Member of the Year” by his peers.

In presenting the award, Mercyhurst President Michael Victor said, “Joe is the consummate fan, consistently there on the sidelines rooting on both coaches and student-athletes. Plus, coaches say whenever they have a recruit on campus, he drops everything to meet with the prospective student and their parents. Joe is a great source of pride for Mercyhurst University and we thank him for his service.”

Perhaps no one works quite as closely with Kimball as Associate Director of Athletics Lauren Packer Webster. “I will miss most his compassion and sincerity,” she said. “He cares deeply and genuinely about our staff and student-athletes. His unwavering support has been the catalyst for Laker success in the classroom and in competition. Joe’s leadership is truly transformational.”

In the eyes of Men’s Ice Hockey Coach Rick Gotkin, Kimball “does the work of 10 people.”

Indeed, Kimball has been known to shovel sidewalks, erect cones to safeguard parking spaces for game day officials, and even help prepare fields. “It’s just part of the job at a small, private school,” he said.

Gotkin also said Kimball has an open-door policy and “the unique ability to get the most out of people.”

Deanna Richard, women’s basketball coach, said, “My biggest takeaway from Joe is that he makes the atmosphere in athletics like that of a family. Plus, being a former coach, he knows what it feels like to be in our shoes and he’s right there through our ups and our downs.”

Gerry Tobin, associate professor of psychology and longtime friend, took to superlatives: “Nobody out there is better than Joe Kimball as a person. His commitment to his coaches and student-athletes has made a difference in the  lives of everyone here at Mercyhurst, and we are all the better for it.”

Tobin recalled a time when Kimball, as Lakers football coach, held flag football camps in the spring for Erie children in grades 1-6. “He did this both for the young kids and to provide an opportunity for his athletes to gain mentored coaching experience,” Tobin said. “Both of my sons, many of their friends, and the children of several of my colleagues walked away from that experience bursting with pride because every kid had a chance to succeed. Joe would run from game to game cheering the kids, connecting with parents, and coaching his student-athlete coaches. Everyone admired ‘Coach Kimball.’”

The Kimballs are the parents of three sons, Connor, Bryant, and Colin. Bryant and Colin are Mercyhurst alums. Colin set numerous records as a four-year defensive back and punt-returner and was named the Male Senior Student Athlete of the Year in 2015.

What’s next for Kimball? He’s keeping that close to the vest, but he admits to hoping one day soon that his family will grow and he’ll have a few grandkids waiting in the wings to call him “Coach.”