Former Steeler Jack Muller reveals family secret and finishes degree at SRU


JAck at graduation

Jack Muller walked in Slippery Rock University’s 2024 commencement ceremony with his daughter, Sophia, ’23, in the crowd not knowing her father never completed his degree.

June 18, 2024

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Regrets linger for many professional athletes. A missed shot or errant pass leave them wondering what might have been. There's nothing they can do about it decades later. A former offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers went back and did something. But it wasn't finishing a block; it was completing his college degree.

"It's been eating at me for 41 years," said Jack Muller, who left Slippery Rock University in the spring of 1983 when he signed with the Steelers.

Muller re-enrolled at SRU for the spring 2024 semester and completed 15 credits online to earn a degree in interdisciplinary studies. Muller is an example that underscores a new "Finish What You Started" campaign by SRU to reach the hundreds of former students who previously withdrew from University and encourage them to readmit. In many cases these individuals are only a few credits short of a degree and they can complete their degree online.

Muller's story has an interesting twist, not only because he was a former professional athlete, but because his commencement ceremony led to an emotional, surprise encounter.

A native of Zelienople, Muller was a four-year letterman and All-American on the SRU football team who pursued an unlikely career as a professional athlete for a player from a small Division-II school. Having caught the attention of scouts from the hometown Steelers team that won four Super Bowls in the previous decade, Muller jumped at the opportunity to leave college.

"Everybody just kind of laughed at me when I said I was going to try to become a professional football player," Muller said. "I think that helped drive my spirit with the naysayers. Going to the Steelers was a high honor for me coming from Slippery Rock and being a local kid who all of a sudden is playing with all these Super Bowl greats. I was in awe of them; it was an uplifting experience."

Muller shared a training camp locker room with the likes of Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster and Jack Lambert. He even made the final cuts heading into the regular season, but he was placed on the reserve list and eventually released when his spot was needed for an injured veteran, Larry Brown.

Unable to catch on with another NFL team, Muller played for three teams for parts of three seasons in the upstart United States Football League before teams stopped calling.

"I bounced around a lot, and nobody was making millions of dollars back then," said Muller who played with the USFL's Memphis Showboats, New Jersey Generals and Pittsburgh Maulers. "I kind of limped along until the end and then I was like, 'I've got to make a decision here. I can't wish my life away thinking I'm going to make some team.' I decided move on and get back to life."

Muller took a job in the only other industry he knew besides football. While in high school, he worked as a laborer for Controlled Blasting, Inc. in Evans City. After his football career ended, he went back to the company, earned his blasting license and got into the sales side of the business.

"I learned the business from the ground up to understand how explosives are loaded, transported to the job site and detonated," Muller said. "When I got into the corporate side, I understood how everything operated and I managed and trained other people on projects that cost hundreds of millions of dollars."

Beginning in 1987, Muller worked for several national manufacturer of explosives, from Texas to Oklahoma and Georgia, and in 2002 he became director of corporate sales for Austin Powder Company, based in Beachwood, Ohio.

"Even though it did not prohibit any career advancement, not having a college degree affected me drastically," Muller said. "It was one of the boxes that was never checked."

SRU football coach Shawn Lutz called Muller in January asking if he'd be interested in coming back to the University as a student to finish what he started back in 1978.

Muller talked it over with his wife, Jacki, '83, who earned her degree at SRU and worked on campus as an executive assistant to the president from 1994-2003. She recently retired as the senior director of marketing and communications at Grove City College.

Muller was in a career transition as well. After 21 years at Austin Powder Company, took on a new role leading an international company in establishing its U.S. presence this year. Taking five college-level courses during this time wasn't ideal.

"My wife asked me, 'Do you really want to do this?'" Muller said. "I wasn't sure, because 15 credits are a lot, but then I said, 'What the heck, let's do it.'"

Muller credits SRU President Karen Riley as being instrumental for clearing a path from administrative barriers facing former students like him through the "Finish What You Started" campaign.

"If it wasn't for Dr. Riley making this a priority, I wouldn't have done this," Muller said. "The timing and everything worked out. Even with my classes, with a lot of management and leadership courses I took, I had experiences from the last 40 years that I could apply. It all tied in perfectly."

"There was a lot of substance behind his work," said Lt. Col. Jennifer Martin, professor of miliary science, who was Muller's instructor for the Multicultural Leadership class. "I often thought, 'Who's learning from whom?' I learned a great deal from him. I even told him that I want to work for him when I retire from the Army.  After commencement, when he told me that my class was his favorite, it meant the world to me."

That wasn't the only role-reversal experienced at SRU's commencement ceremony.

Muller's daughter, Sophia, '23, graduated from SRU a year earlier but she lived her entire life assuming that her father earned his college degree.

"We stressed the importance of getting a college degree and we pushed her to get a good education," Muller said. "But I was embarrassed that I kept from my daughter that I never graduated."

His wife, Jacki, devised a plan to make sure Sophia was in town for a surprise party on the evening of May 4, but before that her father had a lunch meeting with clients.

"She told me we're just going to go over to commencement, because I graduated last year, and she said this might be nostalgic for me," Sophia Muller said. "I asked, 'Mom, what are we doing here?' and she told me to look over there, and then I see my dad (in the cap and gown) and I'm like, 'What the heck is going on?' I was so surprised and excited that I started shaking and crying."

Her father was also fighting back tears after keeping the secret inside for so long.

"For me, it's a lot of emotion driven by overcoming the embarrassment," Muller said. "Walking in the ceremony helped."

Muller fulfilled his commitment to education for his daughter, who is now a recreation therapist at Presbyterian SeniorCare in Oakmont.

"My dad never seemed embarrassed," Sophia said. "He's always been such a successful man, despite not having a degree. I told him that a degree doesn't define you."

But it certainly meant a lot to Muller to fill a void in his life and finish what he started.

"It was like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders," Muller said. "When I say that was a box that I didn't check. Well, that was a big-ol' check."

More information about online degree completion programs at SRU is available on the University's website. There's also another success story from the SRU spring commencement involving a graduate from the program: Joe Coudriet, 64, finished his degree he started 47 years ago, while grieving the loss of his wife, who he met at SRU.

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