This article suggestion was submitted by frequent reader Donald Georgis
Per Donald, it’s relevant to Pitt because, “Many on the POV blog often offer comments on Wisconsin’s football program, but I don’t know if any of them really know who is responsible for its success. Without a doubt, the credit goes to Donna Shalala who was instrumental in the resurrection of the football program at UW. The program was in dire shape when Donna was hired as Chancellor of UW around 1990. There was little interest in the program as evidenced by low game attendance averaging around 30,000 or so. I am enclosing an article about the resurrection of football at UW that pretty much explains what it takes to establish the groundwork for a solid program. Prior to her arrival, the UW administration was pretty much like Pitt’s BOT. I would appreciate it if you would publish the article on the POV blog since it would help POVerts better understand what it takes to build a sound athletics program – at least in the view of UW.”
Here is the link to the article, and I’ve pasted the full text below.
BY MIKE LUCAS
UWBadgers.com Senior Writer
MADISON, Wis. — Donna Shalala is naturally competitive.
“I have a fierce sense of winning,” said the 77-year-old Shalala.
She can’t help herself. It’s in her DNA. Her mother, Edna Smith Shalala, a 1933 Ohio State graduate and a nationally-ranked tennis player, is in the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t beat her at tennis until she was 70,” Donna once “joked” to the Miami Herald. It helped to have a good sense of humor when “Mother Shalala” wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Beyond blazing trails as the first female attorney of Syrian-Lebanese descent to practice law in Cleveland, Shalala willed her competitiveness to her twin daughters, Diane and Donna.
At age 9, the girls were teammates on a youth baseball team coached by George Steinbrenner, then in his late 20s and working for a local shipping company.
Steinbrenner went on to become the powerful owner of the New York Yankees.
“I don’t like losing at anything,” confirmed the Boss’ shortstop, Donna Shalala.
Because of her attitude, she was in for a rude awakening and culture shock years later after leaving Hunter College in New York City to be the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin.
Losing was synonymous with the Badger football program in the late ’80s.
“It was a world class research university and it was a chance to go back to the Midwest,” said Shalala, who replaced the retiring Irv Shain and was the first women to guide a Big Ten school.
“It was an opportunity of a lifetime to be able to lead an institution of the quality of Wisconsin … in a middle-class state that knew what they had and really cared about the future …”
But she confided, “I didn’t know very much about the athletic program. To tell you the truth, I read the college football issue of Sports Illustrated on my way out there.
“I was actually mortified when I read it. I had no idea (how bad it was). Except I figured it out after the first year because I was going to the games and there was no one there.”
But there was something she couldn’t figure out.
“I couldn’t figure out how we were financing the athletic department. Everybody kept telling me, ‘It’s fine, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.’ I thought, ‘Hmmm, I better take a look at this.”
The subsequent turnaround was so dramatic and impactful — spawning decades and decades of success — that Shalala, the linchpin of the renaissance, will be inducted into the UW Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I still run into Wisconsin people today,” said Shalala, a member of the 2018 HOF class, “that come up to me and say ‘Thank you for what you did with the athletic program.'”
• • •
Prior to interviewing in Madison, where she had some old friends, Shalala’s frame of reference of what she might be inheriting on the Camp Randall gridiron was limited and not very flattering.
Michigan president Harold Shapiro had invited her to attend a game between the Wolverines and Wisconsin and she said, “It was really embarrassing. We looked like a high school team.”
Shalala had done her graduate work at Syracuse. So, she knew what a good team should look like. When she arrived on the UW campus in 1988, she was very attentive to everyone around her.
“It was just a matter of listening to people,” she said.
Traveling the state, she recalled talking with farmers who would listen to the Badgers on the radio while working their fields. “They were really disappointed with the team and program,” she said.
In visiting with alums, she realized, “More than anything, they wanted a winner again.”
As for the overall welfare of the Badgers athletic department, she noted, “It had a very substantial deficit ($2.1 million) and it didn’t have a strategy for getting better.”
That prompted Shalala to take bold action — she fired athletic director Ade Sponberg in mid-November of ’89 and summarily tapped into the expertise of Don Canham, the successful Michigan AD.
Canham was known for his business acumen. Collegiately, he was a rare money-maker; rare because few others nationally had adopted his aggressive, bottom-line mindset.
“Sports is a business now,” he advised Shalala, “so if you can find a businessman with ties to the university, preferably athletic ties, that’s the way you want to go.”
Shalala took Canham’s words to heart, along with those from Roger Formisano, a professor in the School of Business. Formisano was Shalala’s choice to lead the athletic board.
Wisconsin not only needed a businessman, but Canham suggested the athletic director had to have strong ties to the Badgers to excite the fan base; what Formisano labeled, “The Ooh, Aah factor.”
“The only person I knew with those characteristics was Pat Richter,” Shalala said. “But everyone told me, ‘You can’t get Pat. He’s got a big job and gets paid a lot of money.'”
Richter was the vice president of personnel for Oscar Mayer Food Corps. A legendary athlete at Madison East and Wisconsin, Richter had wide-spread respect in the community and the state.
“He cared a lot about the program and he had given me a lot of advice on what he thought the program needed to be turned around,” she said. “But he was reluctant (to take the job).”
Shalala didn’t get her man initially. But she was undaunted.
“The real person I had to get was Renee Richter,” she said of Pat’s wife. “Once I went to work on her, I think we both convinced Pat that it was the right thing at the right time.”
Meanwhile, in late November of ’89, Shalala made plans to fire head coach Don Morton, whose signature Veer offense failed to produce any desired results (6-27) and emptied the stadium.
In mid-December of ’89, Richter was named athletic director and entrusted with putting the “W” (winning) back in Wisconsin sports. His first hire was Barry Alvarez, who executed the turnaround.
“The only skill I had,” Shalala said, “was going to the right people for advice and listening to people in Wisconsin about their concerns and what we should do.
“And, then, I put the coaching decisions in the hands of Pat, who knew what he was doing. I never tried to substitute my judgment … and I have a lot of judgement.”
Alvarez can attest to her resolve.
“She saw the big picture,” he said of the compatibility between athletics and academics, “and realized having a strong athletic department, particularly football, is meaningful to the total university.
“The thing that I always admired about her was that she was right in the middle of it; she worked very closely with me and she came to every recruiting weekend.
“She talked to the kids and parents and if there were issues on campus, political issues, she’d cut through the red tape. She was a tremendous leader.
“When she made decisions, it was what was best for the program, what was best for the student-athletes. She never worried about how the media or people were going to respond to it.”
In sum, Shalala’s fingerprints were on everything, including the athletic board.
“I asked the provost at the time, David Ward, to pull a list of full professors or senior members of the faculty who had at least two season tickets to two different sports,” she said.
“It turned out that we had some very distinguished faculty members, so we redid the athletic board from that list and they had one responsibility, and, that is, we had to be financially viable.”
Shalala continued to be a good listener even after reshuffling the deck.
“I never hesitated,” Alvarez said, “if there was an issue to pick up the phone and call her.”
He also never hesitated to tell the “House Guest Story” at speaking engagements.
“You do know the famous story that Barry tells?” Shalala posed rhetorically.
And then she told it herself.
“Barry and his wife Cindy stayed with me (at Olin House) for a couple of months while their house was being finished. I wasn’t there for part of the time.
“He then went to the Big Ten coaches meetings and when they went around room, everybody complained about their chancellors or their presidents, except for Barry.
“He said, ‘Well, I’m getting along with mine because I’m living with her.'”
The Badgers have been living a charmed life since that first Alvarez Rose Bowl in 1994. Shalala cited the sustainability: the Badgers have been to 16 straight bowls, the Big Ten’s longest active streak.
“The key is not whether you have one good year,” Shalala said. “It’s whether you have quality student-athletes and quality coaches year after year and whether they graduate and you win championships.”
Shalala made the most of her time as Wisconsin’s chancellor: a little over five years.
“If it hadn’t been for the President of the United States who got me out of here,” she said, “I’d still be here because I loved the state and I loved the university and I loved leading.”
As far as returning for the Hall of Fame weekend, she said, “I’m thrilled. It’s Wisconsin, it’s a place I love … I’m in the middle of a political campaign but I told everyone I’m leaving for Madison.”