Miami president + Badgers ties 'Shalala Bowl'

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Saturday, December 26, 2009
— If Wisconsin beats Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl, Hurricanes fans may have an unlikely figure to blame: University of Miami president Donna Shalala.

Before she served as President Bill Clinton's health and human services secretary, Shalala was the University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor who helped turn an embarrassing football program into a perennial Big 10 contender.

Some are calling Tuesday's matchup in Orlando between No. 14 Miami and No. 24 Wisconsin "the Shalala Bowl." Shalala, for her part, isn't making any predictions.

"I knew this was going to happen eventually, but I hoped it would be for the national championship," she said of her current and former schools playing.

A bowl appearance was a dream for Wisconsin fans when Shalala arrived in Madison in 1988.

In her first two seasons as chancellor, Wisconsin had a combined 3-19 record (including a 51-3 home drubbing to Miami in 1989 in the schools' last meeting) and finished last in the conference. The athletic department had a multimillion dollar deficit. Even farmers wrote Shalala letters asking for change and state pride was suffering.

"It was a great university and they knew it, but they wanted their Badgers to be a great football team," Shalala said.

And so, in 1989, Shalala fired athletics director Ade Sponberg and three-year football coach Don Morton. Shalala said firing both men was risky because, while change was necessary, some doubted the academically strong Wisconsin would ever succeed in athletics.

Shalala rejected that view and replaced Sponberg with the man she felt was perfect to turn things around: Pat Richter, a former All-America tight end at Wisconsin who had starred on its last Rose Bowl team in 1963 and played in the NFL.

Richter was reluctant to leave his job as an executive at Oscar Mayer Co. in Madison. Shalala lobbied him hard to take the job after he led a committee that reviewed the department's finances and emerged as a leader among former players who wanted change.

"I told him he couldn't say no," said Shalala, recalling how she even talked to Richter's wife about the position. "I did not have a Plan B."

Richter took the job and moved quickly to hire Barry Alvarez, then the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Alvarez, Richter and Shalala toured the state and nation meeting with alumni and promising a new era in Wisconsin football.

"We were out sometimes three times a day at breakfast, lunch and in the evenings," Alvarez recalled. "We had to sell our program and we had to reinvigorate our alums. The athletic department was bankrupt."

Alvarez said he involved Shalala in recruiting, asking her to speak to players and their parents when they visited campus. Shalala, he said, "would do anything we asked."

Shalala left the university to join Clinton's cabinet, where she served all eight years of his presidency, just as Wisconsin was returning to greatness. Wisconsin was Big Ten co-champion in 1993 and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl, where the Badgers defeated UCLA. Wisconsin won two more Rose Bowls during Alvarez's 16-year tenure as coach.

Shalala said she has gotten too much credit for Wisconsin's resurgence, praising fans who "urged me to do the right thing" and boosters who helped financially.

"The key was getting the right leaders in place, so I'll take some credit for that," she said. "But the rest is really Pat and Barry, with me clapping on the sideline."

Today, Richter and Alvarez have their own statues outside Camp Randall Stadium, which underwent a $109.5 million renovation after the team started winning again.

The ties between Alvarez, Richter and Shalala continued during her tenure at Miami.

Alvarez came close to taking the coaching job there in 2001 after Shalala was named its next president. Alvarez said the move was "very tempting" but the deal fell through because there was not enough time to negotiate a contract. He stayed at Wisconsin, becoming athletic director in 2004 and retiring from coaching after the 2005 season.

Shalala succeeded in tapping Richter again, asking him to lead the search for an athletics director at Miami after Paul Dee announced in 2007 he was stepping down. The search ended with last year's hiring of Kirby Hocutt, then the athletics director at Ohio University.

Richter said Shalala's challenge at Miami has been the reverse as it was in Wisconsin: improving academics at a school long known for good football teams. Shalala said her strategy for both has been the same hiring good leaders, making sure they have winning strategies, and holding them to high standards.

"There's no question I was brought in here to bring Miami into the top tier of American universities and we basically have done that," she said. "Wisconsin was already there as a great research university but had fallen down on athletics and needed a chancellor that paid attention for a while."

Last updated: 12:05 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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