Jeff Eisen’s first visit left quite an impression.
Known then as Mount Olive College, the men’s basketball team had just made its first-ever appearance on the NCAA Division II Elite Eight scene.
The picturesque campus neatly tucked into southern Wayne County showed potential for growth and an opportunity to provide student-athletes with a quality experience.
It wasn’t a finished product.
And Eisen wanted to make an imprint.
“I was looking for a place where you got a chance to do some things, be successful and make a difference,” he said. “I’d always worked at smaller, private schools, a setting in which I’m comfortable, so it seemed like it would be a good fit.
“We had a good foundation to build.”
More than 15 years later, the University of Mount Olive has gained respect and notoriety on the regional and national stages under Eisen’s watchful eye and leadership. He refuses to take sole responsibility and spreads gratitude among the school’s administrative staff, the student-athletes, the coaches and the community’s support.
Eisen has cemented himself in school and Conference Carolinas history.
The Trojans have logged 37 regular-season league titles, 68 league tournament championships and made 71 NCAA tournament appearances in various sports. That’s not to mention 13 Joby Hawn Cups – five overall, seven men and five women – that recognizes the school for its outstanding all-sports excellence in conference play.
Now, it’s someone else’s turn to guide UMO.
Eisen announced he’ll retire as vice president of athletics Dec. 31.
“We’ve had a lot of accomplishments and I know there’s more to be done still, but really it was time for me to turn it over to someone else and let them take the reins,” Eisen said.
“It’s been a great run and even though I’m retiring, I will always bleed green.”
During Eisen’s tenure, the athletic department has steadily grown with the creation of new positions, the enhancement of facilities and the expansion from 14 to 22 intercollegiate NCAA sports.
Make that 23.
The university recently announced it will add women’s wrestling, giving it the distinction as the only North Carolina college to offer the sport.
“We have a pretty good setup for wrestling where we’d be able to accommodate a women’s team without having to do the capital expenses involved,” Eisen said.
Eisen’s calling card goes beyond athletics.
UMO’s fund raising organization, the Trojan Club, has increased from 100 members during its inaugural year to over 800 alumni and community friends who have given approximately $200,000 in annual donations.
He created the UMO Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.
Blessed with quality coaches who recruit top-notch students worldwide, Eisen has seen the athletic programs produce academic all-conference recipients on a yearly basis — including nearly 100 in 2020-21. The average team grade-point average (GPA) has been 3.0 or higher for a school-record 20 consecutive semesters.
“Obviously working with coaches directly is critical,” Eisen said. “[Showing] support and listening to them … make sure we’re communicating and being transparent in operations. I think it builds trust and respect. We want to be well-rounded individuals who are achieving in both areas.
“We put a lot of emphasis on academics [and] put mechanisms in place for progress checks and study help.”
UMO relies partly on its athletic reputation for enrollment purposes. It’s one of the most-diverse, liberal arts schools in the southeast that offer a variety of undergraduate and graduate programs.
Eisen expects the university will experience another boom.
“I think [athletically] we’ve done our job, and will continue to do our job assisting in that role,” Eisen said. “But universities are also relying on new academic programs. It’s become a very competitive market for college students. Universities have to change with the times and I think they’re on the right path.”
University officials expect to conduct a national search to find Eisen’s successor. Details of their quest have not been released.
“His tenure is nothing short of stellar and he will leave us a model of what ’true service’ really looks like,” said Dr. H. Edward Croom, UMO president. “UMO is a better place as a result of the hard work and commitment Jeff Eisen has had over the past many years.
“He will surely be missed.”