Gary Karner, Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
IB Wisconsin's Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet the state's professionals. This week features Gary Karner, commissioner of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Business Address: 780 Regent Street, Madison, WI 53715
Birthplace: Brown Deer, Wis.
Board Membership: Madison South Rotary Foundation Board, Madison South Rotary Club Board, Special Olympics Wisconsin, Wisconsin Sport Development Corporation
Organizations: NCAA Division III Commissioner's Association/executive committee; National Association of Division III Athletics Administrators/past president
Awards: All-American Football Foundation/Outstanding Commissioner Award, 2007; Institute for International Sport/Sports Ethics Fellow, 2005; National Association of Division III Athletics Administrators/Distinguished Service Award, 2003
Education: UW-Stevens Point, BS in education 1975; UW-Madison, MS in educational administration, 1978; UW-Madison, Ph.D. in higher educational administration, 1984
How long have you been at the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and how would you describe your role?
I am in my 16th year as the Commissioner of WIAC. My primary administrative/management role is to oversee the overall operations of the conference including, but not limited to: the administration of 21 conference championships; scheduling; the recruitment, assignment and evaluation of game officials; marketing/promotions; and rules education, compliance, and enforcement. Most importantly, however, it is my responsibility to provide the nearly 5,000 student-athletes who compete in the WIAC each and every year with the opportunity to compete and succeed at the highest level of collegiate competition, to optimize their individual talents, and to achieve their personal and team goals.
The WIAC is the most successful and accomplished Division III conference in NCAA history as evidenced by the 93 NCAA team championships captured by the conference – far more than any other Division III conference. Maintaining that level of success, particularly in a time of economic and budget challenges, is a responsibility I take very seriously.
Who would you say has influenced your career the most, and in what way?
I have been very fortunate to work with a great many individuals who have influenced my approach and management style, particularly during the formative years of my career. However, the most influential individual in my life was my late father, who instilled in me an incredible work ethic and an almost insatiable desire to give back to my profession and community. It's still amazes me that he accomplished so much, impacted so many people, and provided so well for his family without so much as a high school diploma. In addition, few individuals have influenced my professional development and career as much as the late Otto Breitenbach. Otto was always there for me when I needed advice and I greatly admired his integrity and management style.
How can you pay that forward? Who would you most like to be a mentor to, or have the most influence on?
I can't say that I have anyone in particular in mind. I do feel it is an obligation of mine to foster the development of others who may wish to pursue a career in athletics. During my 16 years as commissioner, the WIAC has provided an opportunity for nearly 40 administrative interns to spend a semester in the conference office and gain some invaluable practical experience. I also love teaching and was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach a graduate level course in sports administration at Edgewood College last year and will again during the upcoming spring semester.
What was a personal high point in your career?
Earning my Ph.D. at UW-Madison in 1984 was definitely a high point in my life/career and a launching pad for pursuing my dream of a career in athletics administration. My parents were extremely proud and many of my former high school teachers somewhat dumbfounded given that I wasn't exactly a honor student in high school.
Equally a high point was when I was offered this position by the WIAC chancellors in 1996. I was an NCAA staff member at the time and the opportunity to return home to assume a position I consider to be the best "sports-related" job in Wisconsin was simply incredible. More recently, I was selected to receive the Division III Commissioner's Meritorious Service Award. It's truly special when your efforts are recognized in such a way by your peers.
Now, looking forward rather than back, do you have any long-range goals that you’d like to achieve before leaving sports?
Unfortunately, I have a somewhat self-destructive characteristic of seldom being satisfied with the status quo – a trait that occasionally exasperates those who have to work with me or are otherwise affected by what I do. Consequently, I have far more goals than I have the time and resources to achieve them.
What do you read to help keep you current in your field? What trade associations or training do you belong to that you feel are a good referral?
It's extremely difficult to keep up with all of the material disseminated almost daily by the NCAA that is intended to keep commissioners, athletic directors, etc., apprised of the most current issues and developments within intercollegiate athletics. I do belong to a number of professional organizations such as the National Association of Division III Athletics Administrators (past president) and the Division III Commissioners Association. Both these organizations are invaluable with respect to sharing ideas and best practices among my colleagues.
What were your career aspirations when you were in high school?
There were a number of major developments and events occurring during my high school years (most notably the Vietnam War) that influenced my decision to go to college. Given my love of the outdoors, my goal was to attend UW-Stevens Point (which I did) and earn a degree in natural resources. However, those plans changed during the middle of my sophomore year when I switched my major to education with a minor in coaching. While in high school, I never really gave much thought to becoming a teacher. However, I did have a social studies teacher (Mr. Malloy) who saw something in me and he would occasionally coerce me into teaching a particular lesson or topic to the class.
Can you still recall that first paycheck?
It wasn't a paycheck per se, but I vividly recall the first payment of $6.70 in cash I received for working on a vegetable farm when I was in the sixth grade. It was the first time I had been paid for an honest day's (actually it was more than a day) work by someone outside the family. I suspect there may have been some child labor law violations in play – but since this was in the ‘60s, the statute of limitations has likely expired!
What brought you to Madison?
My first opportunity to live in Madison occurred in the summer of 1976 when I enrolled in graduate school while teaching in Fond du Lac. I took up more permanent residence when I was hired as a teacher the following year in Waunakee. I left Madison in 1979 to take an administrative position at an elementary school in Woodruff, Wis., and returned to Madison in the summer of 1982 when I enrolled as a doctoral student at UW-Madison. I left the state for 12 years during which time I served as the Director of Athletics/Activities for the Woodland Park (Colorado) School District followed by eight years on the NCAA staff in Kansas City. I returned to Madison once again (and presumably for the last time) in 1996 to assume my current position.
Is there anything you’d like to share about your family?
Sam, my 10-year-old son, is my best friend and the best thing that has ever happened to me. Sam loves sports (imagine that) and he gets the opportunity to experience firsthand aspects of sports that most kids his age never see. I also have a 12-year-old golden retriever who pretty much runs the household.
What do you do outside of the office to relax?
Relaxation is a challenge for me. I am usually multitasking even when I am "relaxing." I do enjoy hunting, fishing, and spending time at my cabin in Crawford County. I also exercise (which may be more therapeutic than relaxing) as much possible and just started the P90X regimen. It’s tough, but very satisfying.
I also find being involved in service activities outside the office and unrelated to my job as a form of relaxation. I am a Rotarian, which means there are endless opportunities for me to give back to my community. I also serve on the board of Special Olympics Wisconsin, which is not only a privilege but one of the most inspiring and satisfying endeavors of my life.
Do you enjoy traveling as well?
Anywhere in the Rocky Mountains. When in Colorado, I lived in a mountain community that was 8,600 feet above sea level and absolutely fell in love with the mountain environment. As much as I appreciate Wisconsin, I will likely retire to some location in the Rocky Mountains when the time comes.
Do you have a favorite book?
The most recent book I have read is When Pride Still Mattered, the book about Lombardi. I couldn't put it down.
Last question! Can you list three words you think best describe you?
Passionate, persistent, fair.