What most people don’t know is that UW-Whitewater’s recent road to athletic excellence began in 2004 when a new athletic director sat down with an outgoing chancellor to chart the course.
Former Chancellor Jack Miller challenged Athletic Director Paul Plinske to win the Division III Directors’ Cup.
The cup is awarded to the school that scores the most points based on athletic achievement in national playoff competition.
“We finished 29th that year, the 2004-05 academic year, out of 444 schools, and it was obvious that Chancellor Miller had set the bar high,” Plinske said. “But I decided to embrace that challenge.”
Over the next seven years, UW-Whitewater athletic teams racked up national championships in a variety of sports, and the school is now in fifth place for the 2011-12 Directors’ Cup with spring sports remaining.
Academic success has kept up with achievements on the playing field.
“I’m not so sure that a student who enrolls here looking at a career in biology will enroll here because of the football or basketball program,” Chancellor Richard Telfer said, “but you can’t dismiss the importance of school pride and a sense of being part of our athletic championships. That has to be figured in when looking at the overall picture.”
The athletic success at UW-Whitewater accelerated when the 2004-05 season ended with a baseball national championship. Until then, the school had only five national championships in its history—two in men’s basketball, one in volleyball and one in men’s golf.
Before Miller left in 2004, he authorized a strategic plan looking at athletic facilities. Out of that plan came new facilities made possible, in part, by a $1.5 million donation from the late Dave Kachel and his wife, Colita.
“Dave believed that athletics provides a window to look at our school,” Plinske said. “Through that window, the world can see our outstanding academic programs as well as our successful athletic teams.”
The football program has been in the spotlight, driven by a stark realization after the NCAA Division III national championship loss to Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl in 2005.
“Coach Bob Berezowitz and I saw Mount Union not only defeat us, they manhandled us,” Plinske said. “They were bigger, stronger and faster than we were. We went home determined to change that.”
The 2006 Stagg Bowl, Berezowitz’s last as the head coach, was more of the same. Whitewater was again defeated by a stronger and faster Mount Union team.
“But we were improving,” Plinske said. “We had a strength and conditioning program in place that would finally pay off in 2007.”
Under new head coach Lance Leipold, the Warhawks won the national championship in 2007. The victory dissolved a controversy surrounding Leopold’s hiring over a veteran assistant coach.
“Under Lance’s leadership, we have won three additional national championships in a row—’09, ’10 and ’11,” Plinske said. “Out of that baseball championship in ’05, the Directors’ Cup challenge and our strength and conditioning commitment, the entire athletic program saw success, not just football.”
Recent UW-Whitewater national championships include football, basketball, gymnastics, wheelchair basketball and rugby.
In addition to winning championships, UW-Whitewater has been able to retain coaches being recruited by other schools. Leipold is the subject of much speculation. Is he looking? Is he being recruited?
“Yes, of course,” Plinske said. “Coaches would be foolish not to look at him, and, yes, Lance is looking at those offers.
“Let’s look at the facts,” Plinske said. “Lance has more national championships—four—than he has total losses—three. He has a 72-3 record here as head coach.”
Plinske is working hard to keep Leipold at Whitewater. A new contract has been negotiated.
“We provide our coaches with competitive pay and a great quality of life here,” Plinske said. “We have good student athletes with an average 2.98 GPA compared to a 2.91 for all students and a 70 percent graduate rate compared to 55 percent overall based on a six-year cohort.”
Both Plinske and Telfer agreed that great coaches and great faculty will, at times, move on.
“We understand that opportunities will come along for our coaches, and we want to help them take advantage of those opportunities,” Plinske said. “Having said that, we are working hard to keep Lance, Pat Miller, our basketball coach, and others here, but we know offers are coming in.”
Telfer attributed academic success to outstanding faculty.
“They are what makes us an attractive campus for students,” he said. “In spite of fiscal challenges, we are able to retain most of them for the same reasons we can retain great coaches.”
Recent academic achievements at UW-Whitewater include international chapter of the year honors for the American Marketing Association and PSE, the school’s sales organization. The school’s Collegiate Entrepreneur’s Organization took top honors at the organization’s national conference.
Two students, Seth Kemmeter and Harley Pyles, joined students from Harvard, Stanford and Boston College in winning a grant to the 2012 Phylomedicine Symposium, and two student entrepreneurs, Andrew Hoeft and Daniel Fink, were invited to the White House to recognize them for companies they have created.
Will future athletic success continue to elevate UW-Whitewater’s profile? Could the baseball team send the school to the top of the Directors’ Cup standings?
“We lost starting pitchers and other key players from last year’s team that went to the championship series,” Plinske said. “but we’ll be in post-season play, and we will continue to compete at a much higher level.”