Hall of Fame: Pat Richter’s keen eye for talent
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The beginnings of an athletic renaissance began at a local meat company. When former UW Chancellor Donna Shalala convinced Pat Richter to leave Oscar Mayer, where he served in human resources as a vice president, and become the director of athletics at UW–Madison, she not only chose a UW football legend, she found someone who knew how to recruit good people and create a winning culture.
Richter would go on to do the same thing at his alma mater, and that’s the primary reason he was selected as a member of In Business magazine’s 2015 Executive Hall of Fame class. New Hall of Famers are nominated and selected by members of the previous Hall of Fame class, a fact that’s not lost on Richter, who was nominated by Bob Dunn, president of the Hammes Co. and owner of The Edgewater Hotel.
Richter sees a number of similarities between the business world and collegiate athletic departments. In both cases, he tried to add value for the people served by the organization — consumers of Oscar Mayer products and students and student-athletes at the UW.
“You don’t normally don’t think of athletics as being about more than winning and losing,” he notes. “There are a lot of collateral things that go into it that make it very rewarding, especially when you are considered to be in that category with respect to Madison and the business perspective.”
When Richter was named athletic director, he had to choose a coach that could resurrect a moribund football program, but more broadly, “we were basically looking at survival.” While Barry Alvarez was hired to fix football, the athletic department’s largest revenue generator when things are going well, the department as a whole was trying to deal with a Title IX lawsuit and a $1.7 million deficit that was revised to a $2.1 million deficit. In addition, Richter had to rebuild relationships with the Legislature because the department’s credibility was being questioned.
A turnaround artist was definitely needed, and Richter drew on his experience in helping Oscar Mayer build a winning culture. “There is no question that football had to get healthy for that to happen,” Richter notes. “Season tickets had dropped and that was a major reason for the deficit. That was the primary reason, but it was also about trying to build relationships and building the confidence that you can get out from underneath this.
“The last few years before we arrived were not the greatest. They hadn’t gone to any Final Fours. They hadn’t been to a bowl game in recent years — all of those kinds of things that students like to do. So we tried to provide a terrific, total collegiate experience.”
And what an experience it’s been. With the hiring of Alvarez, and later Stu Jackson, Dick Bennett, and Bo Ryan to build the basketball program, Richter got on “a roll,” as it’s known in the sports vernacular. The athletic department, now led by Alvarez, is still rolling, and part of the original bargain was to make sure Alvarez was motivated to be successful. He had quality coaching associations like Hayden Fry at Iowa and Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, but he had never been a head coach at the collegiate level.
“Had he come to Wisconsin and not been successful, he might have been out of the business,” Richter states. “That may have been it, so when you have someone like that, who has the motivation to be successful, and knowing the implications if he was not, that’s the greatest motivation you can have in hiring the coach.”