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Nothing makes sense anymore: Part Two

June 2017 just really wasn’t our month, was it?

In college basketball, June is one of those months where even the true die hard fans run out of things to talk about. They start posting nonsense discussion threads such as “Who would win in a fight: your school’s football coach or basketball coach?” (I really hope Pat Baldwin would win). They get excited for cool summer stuff like The Basketball Tournament (Go Banner Boys!) that’s only somewhat related to their program. They talk summer recruiting as schools fill their final openings.

But this June – our June – was the month where Milwaukee Basketball just got kicked in the nuts. How did we get here? Poor leadership – at the conference level and at the school. We already covered the Horizon League in the Part One, so guess where we’re going now?

In 2003, Bruce Pearl led the Milwaukee Panthers to a level that was previously thought to be a dream. He took the foundation laid by Ric Cobb’s final recruiting class and Bo Ryan’s recruiting and development and made it to the Big Dance for the first time in school history, then passed that up with the program’s best year ever, the 2005 Sweet 16.

Bud Haidet did so well as Milwaukee’s AD they named the Hall of Fame after him.

He was able to do these things, reach these heights because he had the support to make it happen. In Bud Haidet, he had an athletic director who always made sure he didn’t have road blocks in his way that would hurt his ability to win. Haidet was mostly hands-off, refusing to micromanage and overcrowd his coaches. He knew how to hire – every coach he hired, save for Ric Cobb in hoops and Jon Coleman in soccer, was a solid success. Most won championships. They built a program that has won six McCafferty Trophies since the year 2000.

Bruce Pearl’s basketball success was just the most visible corner of the Panthers Athletic Dynasty. Bud Haidet was a strong athletic director who excelled at hiring coaches, then let them do their job and didn’t butt in and take credit from them. He was modest, he was unyielding in his support of our student-athletes, and he was better at this job than most of us can ever hope to be at anything we do. This program has missed him since the moment he retired.

Pearl was also able to succeed because he had the support of Chapman Hall. When I say he ‘had the support,’ I don’t mean that chancellor Nancy Zimpher occasionally mentioned the sports programs, went to games and dropped media-friendly sound bytes to feign interest. I mean Nancy Zimpher was a fanatic, a raucous fan who hyped the program everywhere she went. She wore gold pants suits, actively cheered the team on, and joined Pearl in bringing many people onto the bandwagon who would otherwise not be here. She knew what basketball meant for the future of the university.

Nancy Zimpher was chancellor when Milwaukee Basketball kicked off its Golden Age.

In a perfect world, college sports wouldn’t exist, but we don’t live in a perfect world. This is the game America has chosen to play. Zimpher knew that; she knew that basketball was the true marketing arm of the university, and its success would mean higher numbers in applications, higher enrollment, higher student retention and far more active student engagement. Zimpher knew, and that’s why she took not just a passing interest in basketball, but active engagement and rabid support. This showed up even after she left Milwaukee, when she butted heads with Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins, who had embarrassed the university repeatedly and lost control of the program. She hired Mick Cronin in 2006, who has rebuilt the program into a national player once again – this time without the bevy of academic and behavioral problems that plagued Huggins’ program near the end.

Great leaders are often able to accomplish so much because of the people who lead them. Haidet and Zimpher provided Pearl with the space, support and interest he needed from them to build the Panthers into a Sweet 16 contender. By the time Zimpher left the university, the standard had been set by Chapman Hall for the rest of the university: let basketball do its thing. Support it, and good things will happen.

Milwaukee’s success under Bruce Pearl may not have been possible under current leadership.

By now, devotees of the blog will be able to cite the numbers by heart. The fall 2005 semester enrollment was about 26,000, with a 92% selectivity rate (the percentage of applicants who are accepted, not enrolled, at the university). Without adding any major academic programs or schools, building only one building, the residence Riverview Hall with a few hundred beds, not having any huge splash made by alumni and despite not having a major increase in the college-age population, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee would jump to 32,000 students and drop its selectivity rate to 65% by the fall semester of 2008. Not only did the university add 6,000 students, but they got far more selective in what students they accepted – essentially, we got better students and a lot more of them.

This was because of basketball. Anyone who argues otherwise has their head in the sand, refusing to admit the truth. In America, sports are how colleges make waves, how they reach tens of millions of eyes that would otherwise never know they even exist. It’s how they grow, expand, get better. It’s how they engage the community and alumni that they need to make donations and grow the endowment. It’s an incredible tool for the individual schools inside the university to raise money for their projects. It’s how they get the university brand in front of millions of eyes, bringing about a marketing reach that would cost tens of millions, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

I’m not sure any of this has ever occurred to Mark Mone, who was here in 2005 and worked in the School of Business that benefited directly from a major donation by David Nicholas, one of the athletic department’s most voracious supporters who came on board with the university. Nicholas, by far the biggest donor of athletics, was chased off by athletic director Amanda Braun’s many moves to destroy a basketball program that he helped build.

David Nicholas’ donations did many things, such as send kids to summer camp.

I don’t know if the Sweet 16 of 2005 would have been possible with current leadership. Bruce Pearl was a guest on the Marching to Madness podcast a couple weeks ago, during which he spoke of how huge the basketball team’s summer trip to Italy would be for the basketball team. Amanda Braun canceled the Panthers’ 2015 summer trip, citing how it wouldn’t “look good” to spend the money – despite the money coming from private donors. By the way, every single summer trip made by Horizon League teams since 2008 has been followed by a Horizon League Championship – including our 2010-11 regular season title that we won by beating the national runner-up twice.

More basketball is more opportunity for the basketball team to get better, so when Amanda Braun cited the team’s finish in refusing to allow the 2015-16 Panthers to play in a postseason tournament, it wasn’t with the development of the players in mind or the future of the program. The moves caused us to liken Braun to antagonistic team owner Rachel Phelps from the movie Major League. Even her stated reasoning for not allowing the team to play was proven to be total lip service when she allowed the women’s basketball program to play in the WBI this season with a resume that was almost identical that of the 2016 men. This season, Illinois fired John Groce before the NIT, proving you can get rid of a coach and not stop the program from playing in the postseason.

She’s been caught in lie after lie. She stated in an interview that basketball coaches are never kept with one year on their contract, only to see new Wright State coach Scott Nagy indirectly debunk that in an interview with his hometown newspaper a couple weeks later. When she said she didn’t want to make the foreign trip in 2015 because of public money, she made those comments to parents of players.

Just two years after this, Rob Jeter would be fired. His success was only modest, but Braun’s handling of the firing – and everything that followed – was a complete disaster.

Following her firing of moderately successful coach Rob Jeter a year before his contract expired, random supporters of Braun started popping up on message boards and social media, creating anonymous accounts to vehemently support every move the athletic director made. Those anonymous posters are probably lucky they haven’t been exposed, since one of them even tried to hoodwink me into reporting false information about the coaching search last spring in order to discredit me.

She purged the athletic department of many long-standing employees in her bid to clear the land of anyone who could call her out when she prepared to fire the former basketball coach. Many others got life boats, but of the ones she got rid of herself, most landed in better jobs almost immediately – including Kevin O’Connor, the best SID in the country who was retained after being reassigned to Chapman Hall, and DeeDee Merritt, the universally beloved Assistant AD who landed a great job with the NCAA preparing the leaders of tomorrow.

Successful former tennis coach Greg Cromwell laid bare some of Braun’s problems in an interview with Media Milwaukee.

Merritt, by the way, was let go for “budget reasons,” yet Braun expanded the marketing department of athletics and gave finance associate AD Charlie Gross’ position an $11,000 pay bump before the new hire, Cathy Rossi, started. Just six employees remain from Braun’s first day on the job in 2013, an incredible rate of turnover considering the staggering number of employees hired by Bud Haidet that stayed for a decade or longer. Former tennis coach Greg Cromwell laid into Braun in an interview with student Tisia Muzinga of PantherVision and Media Milwaukee. Play-by-play announcer Bill Johnson dropped a pipe bomb on Instagram, making national news.

Before the 2015-16 season began, Milwaukee lost ticket manager Brian Morgan – one of many long-standing employees to leave Braun’s athletic department – to cross-town Marquette. This was a step up for Morgan, who was an excellent employee for the department and well-liked by all. Braun filled the position – wait for it – this month, hiring Ron Reeves, formerly the Director of Ticket Operations at North Carolina. During the 2015-16 season, assistant ticket director Eric Becker filled both his duties and those of the director. When he left for the University of Pittsburgh last August, Braun was stuck putting marketing director Leah Thyne – already stretched incredibly thin by a position with many official duties – in charge of ticket sales.

Much of the work load for selling 2016-17 tickets fell on the shoulders of students, and it showed. The Panthers averaged 1,461 fans in LaVall Jordan’s first (and only) year as head coach, dropping attendance by 45% and finishing ninth in the Horizon League. That drop may have been the largest percentage drop in attendance in the NCAA last season, we just don’t know yet because the NCAA has not officially released their 2016-17 numbers.

Braun’s few successes include moving the team back downtown and securing the naming rights for the university.

Braun did take the team back downtown in her first summer, erasing former athletic director Andy Geiger’s incredibly stupid move to the on-campus Klotsche Center the year before. Then again, Amanda Braun isn’t blind – she didn’t scratch and ding a courtesy car from Andrew Chevrolet. Moving downtown was an obvious move that pleased the fan base. The following year, she helped push the university to secure the naming rights to the Arena, which was a smart move. Then again, it wasn’t exactly her idea.

Attendance has dropped every year since 2014-15, when sales took an uptick after the Panthers went to the NCAA Tournament. The effect was muted by the postseason ban for failure in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate. That failure to reach an acceptable score in the APR is not on Braun, but rather a series of administrative screw-ups by the former compliance director. That employee failed to file paperwork on several players who wouldn’t have counted against the score because they were playing professional sports, something that removes a player’s score from the APR. The players and coaches, who had nothing to do with the APR score (current players don’t count and the coaches had previous athletic directors remove their oversight of player academics), took all kinds of heat from fans, students and members of the community who didn’t understand the background. The athletic department, under Braun’s direction, made no attempt to clear the air or take the heat off the members of the team.

When the team learned they had achieved a perfect APR score for the 2013-14 school year in October 2014, the department failed to publicize this until December 19th, after all but one of the school’s nationally-televised non-conference games had been played.

The following month of January 2015, when OnMilwaukee.com ran a piece by noted peanut gallery curmudgeon Dave Begel pushing Braun to fire head coach Rob Jeter, Braun dodged his phone calls only to get to him in the evening with an e-mail. Standard practice is for the athletic director to show support for the sitting coach, whether or not they’re lining things up to fire him. Not only did Braun not do that, she also didn’t clear the air about the NCAA’s finding that it was administrative dysfunction, and not the fault of the coaching staff.

Clearly, she was planning to fire the coach – but this fact is irrelevant here. What is relevant is Braun’s complete inability to deal with the media; anyone who knew the truth could see her intention right there, but because the local media has routinely ignored the basketball program, neither Begel nor anyone else put two and two together. Had this happened in Madison, every media organization would be running stories questioning whether or not the coach would be fired. Braun has survived this long partly because the program is relatively low-profile.

Braun’s inability to handle the media is one of many shortcomings seen under the spotlight during the spring of 2016.

This lack of media sensibility was broadcast to the public the following year, when Braun was taken completely off guard several times, such as when Bill Michaels asked if she was going to fire Rob Jeter a few days before she did just that,  or when state senator Lena Taylor called her out. Merritt’s reassignment (firing), coupled with the turnover in men’s basketball last year, led to allegations of racism when only one black employee remained in athletics before LaVall Jordan was hired. Braun had trouble keeping her composure. For future interviews, she was flanked by university media relations.

Braun doesn’t just fail at communicating with the media. She told the team of the firing via text message – well, rather, she sent them a text telling them to check their e-mails. At Pat Baldwin’s press conference, the weight of the past 16 months seemed to hit her as she thanked the players for their commitment to the program.

She also failed at communicating with donors, which has cost the university an incredible amount of money in future donations, not just to athletics but academics. I will be fair and mention that Braun’s tenure as AD has seen Fred Sitzberger’s gift of $1 million to the program. I’ll also point out how confident I am in keeping that first sentence in the piece, so consider that.

As for LaVall Jordan, he was hired despite a report that Braun had allegedly informed then-Iowa State assistant coach TJ Otzelberger that he was going to be the next basketball coach, only to find out that he wouldn’t be hired while driving from Ames to Milwaukee with his family.

Braun hired Parker Search two years in a row, this time hiring Pat Baldwin, a finalist last year and her former co-worker in Green Bay.

To find the next basketball coach, Amanda Braun spent $50,000 hiring Parker Search out of Atlanta. It must have been money well spent, because reportedly she did it again this month to find Jordan’s successor, Northwestern assistant coach Pat Baldwin. Not only was Baldwin a candidate the year before, they worked together at Green Bay in the early 2000’s; so Braun probably didn’t need to be spending all this money, especially if she was concerned with appearances as she claimed when she talked to the players’ parents after canceling the 2015 foreign trip.

Braun was roundly criticized on social media for the decision to hire Parker Search again. In my discussions with Division I coaches last week about Pat Baldwin, one posited the notion that Braun had used Parker Search again to put her in a positive light with them so she could find another position down the road, since she would have had all the names necessary to conduct another search this year.

Under former athletic director George Koonce, the students voted in a $25 per semester segregated fee for the athletic program to build a basketball arena on campus with the intent of raising the level of the program. That fee, later reorganized to be the “Athletics Facilities Capitol Projects” fee, was changed so that the university could build a basketball practice facility on the surface lot in front of the Klotsche Center Pavilion – the spirit of the fee, intended to elevate the program, would be intact. It would just be in a different project, one which would have an even greater impact on the ability of the program to succeed.

Under Braun’s leadership, the tiny $25 athletics facilities fee was reduced to $14.50 per semester.

Not only has Braun failed to push that project forward, she has succeeded in pushing it further back. The collection of the fee will take longer because the fee has been reduced from $25 per semester to $14.50, saving the students a whopping $10.50 per semester – roughly the cost of a burrito, chips and salsa at Qdoba. The drop in this fee represents a paltry $84 per student over four years, yet could delay the practice facility indefinitely.

On the conference level, Braun has screwed up multiple times. Either she supported the addition of IUPUI, and she remains completely ignorant to the wishes of her Panther community, or she didn’t support the addition of IUPUI, and she couldn’t convince Chancellor Mark Mone to vote against adding a wholly inferior program that will drag down the conference’s profile. Either way, IUPUI is coming to the Horizon League, and all we’ve got are promises to invest in their program that hasn’t seen success since Ron Hunter was the head coach (the man Bud Haidet should have hired when he promoted Ric Cobb to succeed Steve Antrim).

I believe Braun supported adding IUPUI to the conference; after all, this is the same athletic director who thought it was such a hot idea that she voted for the conference move the Horizon League Tournament from campus sites to Detroit. Unlike the addition of IUPUI, this move was not unanimous; reports say that UIC and Valpo, two of the four schools on the western edge of the conference footprint, voted against the move. Why did Green Bay and Milwaukee vote for this move?

Motor City Madness has taken away Milwaukee’s ability to host the Horizon League Tournament, which accounts for 5 of top 7 games for attendance.

My guess is money; we broke news that the Horizon League was moving to Detroit in a deal that would pay $200,000 annually to league schools. That’s Milwaukee’s cut – $20,000 – to force us to travel to Detroit every year so Detroit Mercy and Oakland can sleep in their own beds and get an automatic home court advantage, whether or not they earned it.

All this to ensure that crowds like this are almost assured to be a thing of the past for Milwaukee Basketball in Panther Arena. That $20,000 covers some travel costs, sure, but hosting the Horizon League Tournament has led to five of the top seven and six of the top ten games for attendance in school history. This was a huge feather in the cap of the program, putting over 10,000 people in the Arena for the biggest game of the season, with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.

At the end of the day, the success is what’s most important – and Braun’s tenure running Milwaukee Athletics has become depressing. After winning the 2013-14 McCafferty Trophy all-sports award in the Horizon League, Milwaukee finished the year with 128 Horizon League Championships – far outpacing the departed second place Notre Dame and third place Butler, and doubling the next-best current league member UIC.

In the three seasons since – 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17 – Milwaukee has added exactly four championships to that total: the men’s track team won the 2015 indoor and outdoor titles, and women’s soccer won the 2015 and 2016 regular season championships. This season, Milwaukee finished sixth in the McCafferty Trophy standings.

Oakland won its third straight McCafferty Trophy in 2017. Milwaukee took sixth, its lowest showing in years.

Milwaukee’s all-around athletic success has fallen apart. So, naturally, what does chancellor Mark Mone do when Amanda Braun’s contract is about to expire?

Why, give her an extension of course!

Your eyes do not deceive you. Amanda Braun had her contract extended for two years, to June 30th, 2019. Instead of packing her bags on Friday, she’ll be with us, “running” the athletic department, for two more years.

Braun received a pay bump, too, just in case your jaw isn’t dropped all the way to the floor yet. She receives a 2% pay increase, with the ability to make more from bonuses.

So let’s see how her 2016-17 year bonus scorecard would look if the bonuses in Braun’s new contract were applied:

  • $5,000 for the McCafferty Trophy: Nope, sixth place.
  • $1,000 for a team finishing first place in the Horizon League: women’s soccer, for $1,000.
  • $5,000 for the men’s basketball team reaching the NCAA Tournament: Close, but no cigar
  • $2,000 for each year at least 50% of the teams score at least 960 in the APR: Let’s hope so.

The contract also allows for a cell phone and data plan so Braun can text Pat Baldwin with directives while he’s preparing for games. She’ll also be able to surf the web on that phone, so she can read national news outlets such as ESPN reach for her dumpster fire when there’s not much else to post.

Mark Mone has been a largely apathetic chancellor for Milwaukee Athletics.

This is going to be the national reputation of the athletic department until Amanda Braun is replaced. Unfortunately Mark Mone, the apathetic chancellor, couldn’t care less. He’s too busy trying to go viral to really fix the problems in athletics. One source told PantherU that Mone was not present in the room while a committee consisting Amanda Braun, Deputy AD Cathy Rossi, representatives from Parker Search, interim Vice Chancellor Jim Hill and others interviewed finalists.

They say he wasn’t present…for the finalist interviews to hire of the highest-profile, highest-paid employee in the entire university.

Well Mone, you were offered and accepted the job as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That includes Milwaukee Athletics.

Get off your chair and do something about this, chancellor. Or should we start taking 30% of your salary and divert it into the Panther Excellence Fund?

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Link: Amanda Braun 2017 Signed Contract

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