PantherU

The Summer of Optimism

What a rough year.

That’s all I could think of when the Milwaukee Panthers finished the regular season in men’s basketball as the worst team in the Horizon League. It’s the team everyone looks to, the cash cow, the face of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Milwaukee spent the 2012-13 season getting regularly pounded, playing in a facility that, frankly, didn’t deserve to house a Division I team. The final game of the regular season, a pounding by Green Bay, only brought more pain – yet another game in the conference tournament, on the road, at the Resch Center.

For those who follow more than men’s basketball, it wasn’t exactly a year to crow about up to that point. Men’s soccer and women’s basketball were on the upswing, but both still weren’t back to the top. Women’s soccer did its thing with new coach Greg Henschel, but they were unceremoniously dumped in the NCAA Tournament.  Volleyball…oh man.  It wasn’t the kind of year Milwaukee Athletics has been accustomed to – even in the years of men’s basketball not quite reaching expectations, the rest of the program has been more than up to task.

And then it was over. Amanda Braun, hired by Chancellor Michael Lovell, was the surprise candidate. Most people expected or wanted Paul Plinske to be hired as Director of Athletics. We even endorsed him. Monday, March 4th was a surprising day, because on paper it looked as though Plinske was the runaway favorite. It seemed everyone I talked to was blown away by Braun’s hiring, from donors to season ticket holders, from coaches to players, from administrators to students.

I personally told Chancellor Lovell that I would pick Plinske over Braun, even though Braun was qualified and would definitely not be a loss. The supporters of the program were at a loss, and my varied devices were practically ringing off the hook with people who had lost all confidence in Chancellor Lovell to lead, or believed that Andy Geiger had intentionally rigged the process. The gut reaction of hundreds of people was that Paul Plinske was an obvious choice, not that Amanda Braun wasn’t ready, and that is why they were so downtrodden.

How does the old adage go? It’s always darkest before the dawn?

Men’s basketball finished their season by getting swept in three games by archrival Green Bay. Amanda Braun, the choice of few, wasn’t to start work until May 1st, leaving two months of hand-wringing and griping for the fan base.

Once again, PantherU had backed the wrong horse, and I wondered if we were drifting aimlessly as a program. I wasn’t the only one.

Then, on the field, the baseball team started playing like a team possessed. Mike Porcaro was tearing the cover off the ball. The final rotation of Jake Long, Cale Tassi and Mike Schneider spent much of the season mowing down the competition. Baseball scouts were at practically every game Josh Uhen could pitch.

May 1st came to pass, and it’s been nothing short of roses since Amanda Braun took over as AD.  She immediately reached out to the staff, began making connections around campus, and made preliminary moves to right the wrong that most of the fan base saw in playing men’s basketball games at the Klotsche Center.

For those who don’t know, I started a booster club this spring with a few fellow Panthers called the Black and Gold Club. On July 24th, we held our first major event at Powers on 10th in South Milwaukee, a Meet and Greet with Amanda. Due to the bad season, the long summer and the uneasy fan base, we expected no more than 20 people to attend. The final head count was well over 60, since the event came on the heels of the announcement that basketball would once again move to the U.S. Cellular Arena.  Fans came out in droves to meet Amanda, and the mood was very optimistic for the first time in a long time.

In my eight years around this program, I’ve seen many people in that AD chair. Bud Haidet was the consummate pro, but he had his detractors. By the time George Koonce was gone, most people wanted to be the ones to slam the door. Rick Costello was an empty shirt and everyone knew it, although unfortunately no one knew until he started the job. Andy Geiger alienated everyone with the move to the Klotsche Center, even though his intention – to help in bargaining with the Wisconsin Center District and show fans they need to pay up if they want a new arena – was good.

For the first time ever, I can quite honestly say that I haven’t come across a single person who has anything less than glowing things to say about Amanda Braun. I talk to pretty much everybody, so you can imagine my surprise to find that in a short few months, Braun has unanimous support in the clubhouse.

This pretty much everyone knows by now. But it says something else to me. It says a lot about Mike Lovell, who stuck to his guns and hired someone who he believed was the right person for the job. He hired Braun over the express wishes of many people. and that takes guts and intellect from someone that deserves to be sitting in the big office in Chapman Hall.

When I think back to what I felt five months ago on March 7th to what I feel today, it’s like night and day. The dawn has come and the sun is blinding. Milwaukee Athletics has strong, competent leadership and now is the time for the rest of us to fall in line. If this program moves forward, the leadership of Lovell and Braun is going to have a great deal to do with it.

I think the 80’s one-hit wonder Timbuk3 said it best:

One Comment

  1. Dan

    August 8, 2013 at 1:14 am

    Lovell and Braun will make a strong team. I’m confident they’ll move the university, including the athletic program, forward. I’m thrilled they made a five year deal to be at the Cell. It allows for time to really think about a new basketball facility, and to lay the groundwork if Lovell and Braun decide that it’s best for the university. Here’s to an exciting basketball season! Now let’s break ground on a new baseball stadium.

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