An old slogan has etched itself in Ryan Callahan’s brain.
“Stay close, go far,” was a message UW-Whitewater delivered to prospective local students when Callahan was getting set to graduate from Janesville Parker in the late 1990s.
Whether that saying is all that original or catchy can be debated. But it drew Callahan in, and during the past 20 years he has essentially been its poster child.
He went from pitching for Parker to pitching for the Warhawks to being drafted by the San Francisco Giants and playing minor league baseball. But he always sensed he would return to Whitewater. And so he did, taking on roles of graduate student, groundskeeper, assistant coach, and Director of Continuing Education at different times since 2007.
In May, Callahan’s rise up the ladder at UW-W continued when he was an named the school’s interim athletic director, a position that came with a two-year appointment.
He hopes to spend the next two years—and perhaps beyond—continuing to forge the Warhawks’ athletics excellence while restoring stability to a position that has been held by four people since 2013.
A perfect pitch
Callahan knew he wanted to play baseball in college but wasn’t sure where.
Former Parker coach Dan Madden introduced him to then-Whitewater coach Jim Miller after Callahan graduated in 1999.
“The summer of ‘99, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and so that (going to UW-W) was one of those things that was kind of a no-brainer,” Callahan said.
“I might as well stay someplace close, where my family can be involved and come watch.”
Callahan dazzled at the Division III level. He was a three-time all-Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference pick and a two-time all-region honoree. He was part of four WIAC championships, two conference tournament titles and four NCAA Tournament appearances. And Callahan led UW-W in complete games, shutouts, innings pitched and strikeouts, while putting up a 2.21 ERA during a 2004 senior season that ended with a run to the DIII World Series.
Callahan will be inducted into the UW-Whitewater Athletics Hall of Fame in October.
But his baseball career did not end there. He spent a couple seasons in minor league baseball after being drafted by the San Francisco Giants. And, after connecting with fellow Janesville native Terry Ryan, he advanced as far as Class High A with the Minnesota Twins organization.
When his playing days were finally over, Callahan was drawn back to Whitewater.
“I just had such a positive experience when I was here those five years,” he said. “I don’t think I ever saw myself doing anything differently. This was the place I wanted to be for a long time. And my dream was to be a college baseball coach.”
Eager to dive into coaching, Callahan’s first call back in Whitewater in 2007 went to baseball coach John Vodenlich, Callahan said.
“They created a very part-time groundskeeping position while I was going to get my Masters degree in coaching,” Callahan said. “I still talk to the groundskeepers. I used to work with them; we’re one in the same. I was doing that 12 or 13 years ago.”
After earning his Masters, Callahan continued coaching while working in the advising center. He eventually became the Director of Continuing Education in 2012. He “assisted in the campus-wide effort in identifying, planning and providing non-credit programming that addresses the needs and opportunities among regional constituencies and their communities,” according to his UW-W biography.
In 2017, under former AD Todd Garzarelli, Callahan became Assistant Athletic Director for Internal Operations, a position that included maintaining budgets for all 20 athletics programs on campus.
“I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had some really good mentors around here, whether it’s direct supervisors or other people on campus,” Callahan said. “If I have a question, they’re a phone call away.”
In his dozen or so years back on campus, Callahan has also seen plenty of prominent figures come and go.
“Our campus is in a transitional time,” he said. “We have a new chancellor, an interim provost, an interim dean of College of Education—all who we work very closely with.
“A lot of the positions we have to deal with on a daily basis, those people have only been in there for two or three years. ... I’ve been here. I’ve seen them come and go.
“I just think it’s important to have institutional knowledge. A lot of decisions were made for the five-, 10-, 15-, 20-year plans, and we were fortunate to have some really good athletic directors.”
Callahan specifically referenced Shawn Eichorst, who went on to be Nebraska’s AD and is now working at Texas, and Paul Plinske, who is now at Colorado State-Pueblo.
“These guys laid out plans that were pretty successful,” Callahan said. “I feel like it’s my job not only to continue those plans and make sure we’re fulfilling them, but to start some new avenues and new plans.”
Callahan is UW-Whitewater’s third AD since Plinske departed in August 2013. Amy Edmonds took over for Plinske but was returned to a role of associate athletic director in October 2016. Garzarelli was eventually hired in June 2017 but left for the same position at Indiana University Pennsylvania this past May.
Callahan’s appointment as interim AD is for two years, at which point UW-W will open it up for a national search, Callahan said.
“If I’m the one guiding the ship after two years, great,” he said. “If not, it’ll be set up for someone else and hopefully would be pretty seamless.”
UW-W women’s basketball coach Keri Carollo said she believes Callahan is an excellent fit for the AD position.
“I had worked with Ryan on camps a little bit, and then when we were trying to fill assistant AD spot, he was an easy choice,” Carollo said. “Now having worked for him a little bit closer, he’s just a super guy. He very much bleeds Warhawk purple.
“Having an alum and former athlete has definitely a breath of fresh air in our department. I think everyone is really excited about it.”
Callahan said part of his plan includes maintaining the high-caliber facilities that have helped UW-Whitewater become one of the most successful DIII athletic programs in the country.
“Overall, we’re in a pretty good spot, but there are some upkeep things,” he said. “That’s what got us to this level, building facilities that were better than everyone else. Now everyone else is catching up, so what’s the next step? How can we separate ourselves?”
Callahan said his goal right now is to become the school’s permanent athletic director, but those future plans also hinge on his young family, which resides in Janesville. His wife, Danielle, also works in Whitewater, and they have three children—7-year-old Paige, 5-year-old Sloane and 3-year-old Sean.
“I just have a passion for this place,” he said. “And hopefully in two years I’m still passionate about it.”
Twenty years after enrolling at UW-W, Callahan has stayed very close to the campus. Now in the driver’s seat of the school’s athletics department, he’s prepared to see how far he and the Warhawks can go.