By Ann Gill (M.A., ’76)
Tom Ehlers (B.S., ’85) grew up in Elk Grove, California, and his first offer to play college football came from Colorado State. When he committed to the Rams, it was the beginning of a life-long dedication. As longtime Athletic Department employee Gary Ozzello (B.A., ’78) explains: “From the moment Tom set foot in Fort Collins, he’s been a stalwart Ram!” Legendary Ram coach Sonny Lubick praises his “unfaltering loyalty.” Beloved by players, coaches, and many others, Ehlers was a student-athlete for five years and a CSU employee for 32 years.
On the field, Ehlers was a four-year starter and letterman, initially at defensive tackle and later at center. In the classroom, he majored in business administration, receiving Academic All-WAC honors three times and the WAC Scholar-Athlete Award. Ehlers loves to tell stories, but few have been repeated more often than the one about hitting a rough patch his freshman year. After a frustrating day in the computer center, he headed back to Parmelee to call his parents and tell them he was coming home. But while walking near the Lagoon, he looked up to see a spectacular Colorado sunset as backdrop to a couple kissing and some guys playing frisbee. He told himself: “This is the greatest place ever–just suck it up!” The very next week, he moved to defensive tackle, and when fellow players suffered injuries, he made the travel squad. After the Homecoming Parade each year, Ehlers would take young players to the Vietnam Memorial Bridge and tell that story to let them know everyone gets homesick and struggles when they leave home.
He served as graduate assistant at Oregon State, where he earned an MBA, and at Arizona. He also coached at Brown. When Earl Bruce was hired at CSU, Ehlers returned and served as assistant coach for 16 years, then spent 16 years in football administration, primarily as director of football operations, dealing with an amazing array of issues ̶ recruitment, travel, admissions, academic support, equipment, sideline passes, former player relations, nutrition, and liaison to university offices.
Ehlers developed an extraordinary network, but no one tells his story better than former players. He demanded the best from players and threw his heart and soul into helping them achieve that. George Hill (B.A., ’07) jokes, “He had hair until he met me. I may have been in his office more than I was in class. He always pushed us to do better!” Adrian Ross (B.S., ’98) says: “If someone could walk around and literally be green and gold, it would be Tom! He has been the fuel for CSU for 30+ years. What a blessing it has been to the players, staff, and University to have one of its own alumni pour the passion into the program.”
Like his commitment to CSU, his commitment to players is lifelong. Kevin Lynch (B.S., ’92) explains, “I still call him to get pep talks; he continues to teach me how to be a better person. Coach Ehlers is the reason so many people are still connected to CSU; he is what makes CSU a special place.” Dr. Jaime Bennett (B.S. ’01) argues, “there are only a few names synonymous with CSU Football, and Tom Ehlers is one of them. His unsung leadership has guided many Ram football players to opportunities that would not have been available without his mentorship.” Bryan Schneider (B.A., ’94) says: “Tom recruited me out of high school and has been looking after me ever since. He has made an impact on every single player, parent, or coach that has walked through CSU since 1989.“
Jose Ochoa (B.A., ’02) agrees, “Ehlers held the program together. He was great to me from the moment I stepped on campus. To this day, if I need him, I can just give him a call. He is my go-to guy, an unbelievable man!” Tony Alford (B.S., ’92) concurs, “When my father died ten years ago, Tom would call and check up on me and on my mother. He has become part of the family; Mom adores him. It isn’t about football or even CSU—it is about life!”
Tom Ehlers is retiring. His plans? “To work in any way I can to help people.” He and wife Lisa Poppaw also plan to travel and spend time with their blended family ̶ Tom’s children, Christine (B.S., ’20), Tim (B.A., ’20), and alumna Annie, and Lisa’s children, Halle, Alex, and Cat. Although he no longer is on campus every day, we all know Tom is just a phone call away!
A Message from Coach Ehlers
Colorado State was a great choice for me and so many people close to me – other students, teammates, and my children. CSU really helped define me as a person, not just a student. I couldn’t possible name all the people who assisted me along the way! A favorite part of my job has been to build the network of former football players and find ways to get them engaged and remain connected to CSU. We all should feel a bit of an obligation to return to CSU, however we can, and support the students who come after us the way we were supported. That can be in the form of advice, attendance, or financial or political support. I know many alumni who feel they could never repay CSU for how well the university served them!