Alvarez replaces Richter, the man who brought him to Wisconsin as head football coach, as athletic director
By Drew Hansen
Simply put, Pat Richter saved the University of Wisconsin's Athletic Department. The former All-American Badger wide receiver took the reigns of a debt-riddled organization in 1989 and transformed it into a financially healthy institution through a dedication to competitive athletics and solid academics.
"Through (Richter's) leadership and ability to assemble a strong departmental team, UW Athletics is more fiscally sound, more highly competitive and more visible worldwide than ever before," UW Chancellor John Wiley said upon the announcement of Richter's retirement in February of 2003.
Richter inherited a department in near shambles facing a $2.1 million deficit when appointed by then-Chancellor Donna Shalala Dec. 15, 1989. Among his first decisions after assuming the role of athletic director was the hiring of then-Notre Dame assistant Barry Alvarez to be Wisconsin's next head football coach. The success of Alvarez' program throughout the 1990s played a substantial role in financially revitalizing UW sports programs while simultaneously instilling an even greater sense of enthusiasm and pride in both athletes and fans.
Thus, it was not the biggest of surprises when Alvarez, who was named an associate athletic director in 2000, was designated as Richter's replacement. And after a year of assessing the division's condition and formulating a transitional plan, Alvarez was set to receive the torch on the first of April.
"It's very clear that a sound fiscal plan is critical to our continued prosperity," Alvarez said. "Fundraising, filling the seats at our events and devising a prudent business plan will be important initiatives for our future. Chancellor Wiley feels that I'm the right person to keep the momentum going in our fundraising and ticket selling areas."
Richter, however, has left some large shoes to fill. Under his direction, the department's deficit has been transformed into a $6.4 million reserve and through deft personnel decisions, the Badgers, on a whole, have never been more successful on the playing field.
The Badgers have won three national championships and more than 50 Big Ten team titles in the Richter era. The football program has been to nine bowl games, winning three Rose Bowls. The men's basketball program appeared in the NCAA basketball tournament seven times including a Final Four appearance in 2000. The women's program has received a tournament bid six times.
Impressively, Wisconsin has produced more academic All-Big Ten honorees than any other school in the Big Ten during the Richter era.
Such excellence both on the field and in filling the seats gave Richter and the department the opportunity to overhaul the athletic facilities on campus. Under his direction the University has built the Kohl Center, University Ridge Golf Course, the Fetzer Student Academic Center and Goodman Softball Diamond, while also carrying out renovations to the McClimon Outdoor Track and Soccer Complex and most recently a massive overhaul of historic Camp Randall Stadium.
"Early on, football was the major issue and hiring Barry (Alvarez) was the first step. Once football got healthy, then the rest of the programs were able to maintain that health," Richter said. "Today everybody has to be running on all their cylinders. We've got three revenue generators in football, (men's) basketball, and men's hockey. We need to make sure those are very healthy. Looking forward, even though during the days we have looked at how to diversify revenue sources to make sure that we stabilize the department, it is becoming an even more significant area. …We are basically totally self sufficient now."
As Richter has taken many successful measures to ensure the economic stability of the department, they have not come without several difficult decisions and even some regret.
"(Cutting baseball) was a hard decision. I love baseball. It was very difficult to sit with teammates while cutting that sport," Richter said. "Looking at it, asking how we were going to survive, you knew it had to be some sports. Once you do that, it is kind of like ‘what's the difference?' There were a certain number of student-athletes that would be affected. You change their lives dramatically. That was probably the most difficult part.
"My son Barry was (attending UW) at the time and he had a lot of friends in school. To see how their lives changed, when they came here with that commitment and suddenly because of things out of their control they no longer had that opportunity. It was difficult in terms of the process getting to that point. We had to go through all of the emotions and build-up before it eventually happened. It was very difficult because people had some expectations that were likely not going to happen."
While Richter will say the economic success of the program has been one of the finer points of his time guiding the department, Joe Maturi, Athletic Director at the University of Minnesota, says his contemporary's greatest accomplishments have displayed themselves through wise personnel selection.
"I think if I were to evaluate (Richter's) greatest strength, it has been the people that he has brought to Wisconsin, and his ability to put people in positions so they will succeed," Maturi said. "He has put wonderful people around him, which is to his credit. And he has allowed them to do their jobs, which is also to his credit."
While the selection of Alvarez will go down as the cornerstone of Richter's personnel decisions, his thoughtful approach in hiring coaches with strong ties to the state, if not the school, has paid dividends.
After Dick Bennett's sudden retirement, Richter decided to go a different direction and did not retain interim coach Brad Soderberg. Then, instead of pursuing big name coaches, UW-Milwaukee's Bo Ryan proved to be the best coach in the state, and thus the best choice. A couple of Big Ten titles later, no one is left doubting the decision.
Similarly, upon Jeff Sauer's retirement in 2002, Richter shied away from going in-house in choosing a new head coach for the men's hockey team. Former Badger standout Mike Eaves, who was working with USA Hockey, was selected as Sauer's replacement over Mark Johnson, a Sauer assistant and son of legendary former men's hockey coach Bob Johnson. After a year of struggles, the strong recruiting base that Eaves brought with his connections to USA Hockey has taken the Badgers back to the top of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Mark Johnson ended up taking the head coaching position for the UW women's hockey team and that program, which was founded in the Richter era, has been very successful.
"I simply did the best I could in directing a very complex organization in an ever-changing world," Richter said. "As a Madison native, I'm especially proud of the job my administration has done because my family could enjoy it too. Hopefully, we made things better for those who compete in or cheer for Badger athletics."
Over the past year, Alvarez, under the title of Athletic Director Designee, has stepped in for Richter and has announced major departmental decisions and hirings. Alvarez has played an integral part in selecting the department's new personnel, from men's golf coach Jim Schuman to women's basketball head coach Lisa Stone.
In playing an active role in department decisions over the last four years, Richter believes Alvarez is up to the challenge of not only guiding the department, but continuing his success as head coach of the Badger football team.
"Barry has demonstrated over the years that he has the skills to be very successful," Richter said. "His understanding of coaches and their needs is an important first step. Barry has willed success into some of his football teams and he'll have the same impact on the other sports and support staff in this department…There are things that he is going to have to work through in terms of understanding the things that you have to do and priorities. He'll do it a lot differently than I do because he's got other things.
"You talk about from July to early January in recruiting, that's a total obsession. I know that it's always helped with coaches that have changed jobs, coaches and the amount of time that they put into their profession. If they did that anywhere else in any other profession, they would be totally, wildly successful. People have no clue how much time the coaches put into their profession. And so that to me, that he does whatever it takes. He kept coming back and nothing seemed to deflect that interest."
Alvarez is confident in undertaking the large order that lies in front of him. After over a year of preparation and counsel Alvarez is fully immersed in the system and ready for his new duties while still keeping the focus necessary to coach a competitive Big Ten football team.
"The challenges of running an athletic department today are certainly very real," Alvarez said. "I am, however, extremely excited and committed to building upon the foundation that Pat will leave behind. Football will be a priority to me. There has to be an emphasis on football, yet I think I can that I can break up my day and do both. I delegate—my staff is set up where I delegate and I hold them accountable."
Under taking the dual responsibility of both athletic director and football coach is a rare task, but UNLV's John Robinson, a close friend of Alvarez, is fulfilling the same duties. Penn State's Joe Paterno filled both jobs in the early 1980s.
For Richter, Alvarez's most important priority in his new duties will be keeping people in the seats—well entertained and at reasonable prices. Alvarez, through his involvement with boosters and other promotions has continually showed commitment to aiding in the success of these areas.
"I think we are in good shape in the sense that if you look at our reserve, if you look at the people, the place, the coaches and things of that nature," Richter said. "If you compare us to other schools, there are certainly some challenging and big decisions that need to be made. We all know how we feel in today's environment with what is going on in the world; that will not be an easy task. With the state budget and how that trickled down to the university and the athletic department, it really makes us sit up and take notice that things have to continue to do well.
"You have to be competitive. I think people realize that we are at a point in time now that we will be competitive. We won't sit back and wait if we have revenue generating problems we are going to attack and get after it real fast. I think in general, the environment and getting that mindset of keeping the public interested, entertained, and coming to the games at a reasonable price – that will be a constant challenge."
Similarly, Alvarez must address the University's Student-Athlete Discipline Policy, especially in the wake of serious allegations regarding the University of Colorado's football team and recent incidents at Wisconsin. Alvarez has said the school's policy was put in place to display the seriousness of criminal incidents to young men and women. The next year will become increasingly important as Alvarez handles his two roles within the department. His goals are similar to what Richter has promoted during the past 15 years.
"One reason I feel confident in doing both jobs is because I've inherited such an outstanding group of people in the administration and I'll run the department much like I coach a football team," Alvarez said. "Number one, put a good plan in order, hire good people to execute it and be flexible enough to make adjustments."
And while Alvarez will undoubtedly stay in a football frame of mind in how he tackles his positions at the University of Wisconsin, his commitment is well grounded in that of his predecessor, with the goals of continually improving the student-athlete experience, the fan experience and the University community.
"I will be committed to continue the growth of the athletic department, not just football," Alvarez said. "I want to give our student-athletes the best possible experience that they can receive while attending the university. I realize there will be many challenges, but I really can't wait to get my sleeves rolled up and get started."