Hall of Fame: Pat Richter’s keen eye for talent

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.”

Rebuilding Bucky

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.”

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When Bo Ryan arrived in 2001, he had his own deep-seated motivation to not disappoint the friends and following he had developed as a spectacularly successful lower-division coach. “They [motivations] don’t exist with everybody you talk to, so if you have someone in that category, you have a little bit better chance for success,” Richter says. “You understand that they’re going to do whatever is necessary to enhance their career.”

There has been talk about UW’s admission standards and whether the university should adopt more flexibility to enroll star recruits like Craig Evans in football or Diamond Stone in basketball. Both are playing elsewhere — Evans on the defensive line at Michigan State and Stone on Maryland’s baseline — leaving many Badger fans to wonder what might have been. Richter, however, believes high standards should be viewed as a recruiting advantage, given that when UW coaches visit an athlete’s home in the recruiting process, they can look his or her parents in the eye and assure them that their child will get a first-class education.

“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Richter says. “You’d certainly rather be at that end of the spectrum than at the opposite end of the spectrum — if it’s well known that anybody can get in. That’s the one thing that’s basically untouchable. The NCAA standards are pretty much the same across the board, but the admission standards are left up to the institution. Bo has proved in basketball and Barry has proved in football that you can win and be very successful and you can get the right kinds of kids in there. You don’t have to make those kinds of compromises to be successful.”

Thankful Badgers

For Richter and UW athletics, success is not only seen on the field, but also in a renovated Camp Randall Stadium, the significant upgrades represented by the Kohl Center and other athletic facilities, the high performance of athletes on the field and in the classroom, and the anticipation fans now have of “Badger Saturdays” or a big-time hoops matchup.

Of all the things he’s accomplished, Richter is most satisfied not by Rose Bowls and Final Fours, but by putting smiles on people’s faces. “When I walk around at the games, someone I don’t know will come up, shake my hand, and say ‘thank you,’” he says. “I know what they mean. I know they have the pride and on game day they know that Wisconsin’s chances to win are much better than they were.

“They’re proud to say they are a Badger, and they appreciate the fact there was a lot of hard work and some tough times to get to this point.”

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