by Eric Dixon
“We’re like Family!”
Bloomfield College, as it has been known since 1961, has been serving it’s community with responsiveness and proactive compassion since its beginnings in 1868 as a German Theological Seminary. It is appropriate and inspiring that the private liberal arts school is led by “spiritual” and passionate leaders who are committed to helping their students find their professional and personal purpose.
“God orders your steps,” intimates Sheila Wooten, the school’s athletic director of 18 years and de facto mother figure, who has been a fixture at Bloomfield since her Hall of Fame basketball career there in the 1980s. She embodies the commitment that she hopes to “grow” in the student body she serves. “Service” is a mantra repeatedly espoused by both Wooten and Gerald Holmes, her assistant Athletic Director and Head Men’s basketball coach, a post he’s held for 19 years.
“One thing my father always told me was do something you love and give back”, says Holmes, a 4-time Coach of the Year during his tenure at the school of 1700 students, which evolved into a predominantly black (PBI) and Hispanic Serving (HSI) institution in the mid-1990s. The commitment to an underserved sector of the education industry was necessitated after ancillary campus policy changes facilitated a shift in student demographics. “We started to get more applications from Essex County so we began to look to better serve those communities,” says Wooten, who shared that during her days as a BC Bear the school was only about 35% African-American. “I enjoyed my experience here (as a student) which is why I came back,” she added saying that even though the majority of the students were white, “we all worked together.”
So why consider Bloomfield College? The answer is a simple one: The People. Holmes, who came from a family of “learned” professionals, and Wooten, one of six siblings from a depressed section of Atlantic City, bring different perspectives but the same passion to “give back” even though neither had early plans to gain their current positions. “This was not my journey” says Wooten, echoing the sentiments of her “brother” who also shared that he entered coaching on a lark after seeing someone he knew garner a high school coaching position.
Holmes, a scrappy 5-7 PG at NJIT (D3) in the mid-80s, said his love of the game didn’t lead him into coaching until 6 years after his playing eligibility expired. Wooten said a chance encounter and some coaxing from a former mentor, Al Restaino, led her to her current perch atop the athletic department where she is one of 5 female ADs and the only African American in the CACC. Both share a love of the college, sports and helping student-athletes reach their goals on and off the field or court.
In addition, Wooten and Holmes lauded Dr. Marcheta Evans, the new President of the school for her continuing and enhancing the commitment of creating a familial environment in the athletic department and school in general. She is the 17th president of the college and first African American female. “I was attracted not only to Bloomfield College’s mission; its designation as a minority-serving institution (PBI and HSI) committed to providing access to an affordable education; the quality of our distinctive, nationally-ranked curriculum offerings; but also to the importance placed on inclusive excellence and preparing our community to be multiculturally-competent citizens,” is part of her perspective she shares in her letter to the school community on the Bloomfield College website.
Athletically and socially, BC offers 14 sports and a wide range of other extra-curricular activities that cater to their specific demographic groups. One example is the “Male Empowerment Club” which welcomes men from all nationalities and ethnic groups but is geared to address concerns of African American males in particular. “We see the unique problems they face and want to help them”, says Wooten.
In men’s basketball, Holmes’ program offers a solid culture, a great atmosphere and winning tradition to “tough, hardworking” players looking to maximize their abilities. Did I mention that they win? A lot. Competing in the CACC the Bears boast an impressive 322-192 record with 11 regular season first place finishes, 7 league titles and 8 NCAA tournament appearances. This team success has translated well into individual accolades for players in the program which has produced six (6) CACC players of the year under Holmes.
Academically the school offers “personalized education with small class sizes that allow faculty to provide detailed assistance and instruction to meet the needs of students. Also, part of the school’s aspirations can be seen in its commitment to making higher education affordable for their students. “Bloomfield College is the first institution in New Jersey to eliminate its comprehensive and course fees” to maintain one of the lowest tuition rates for a private college in the state.
The practical benefit of attending the school is the “Bloomfield Bounce”. According to its website the students are often propelled several rungs up the socio-economic ladder from where they are upon entering the school. This adds pragmatic substance to the pursuit of the institution’s mission statement.
Holmes says although the school’s lack of top tier facilities and awareness of the quality of instruction and academic rigor can present some challenges in recruiting, his focused approach to recruiting and the large amount of talent in New Jersey make getting the right players for his program easier. He demands “mental toughness” from players and believes in an honest approach to recruiting and coaching relieves much of the frustration that small college coaches often experience.
Holmes counts a few influences on his approach as a coach and a prominent one is former Temple great, John Chaney, whose fiery temperament seems in contrast to Holmes’ calm but stern off court demeanor. He is a molder of men who uses the tools of honesty, consistency and accountability to shape his players into contributing community members. In his own way he furthers Bloomfield’s aim to, in the words of Dr. Evans, “recruit, retain, and graduate students to be ‘workforce-ready’ as well as civically-engaged, global individuals.”