A Closer Look at Milwaukee (Part 3)
Editor: Jimmy Lemke (@PantherU) is a long time Milwaukee Panther basketball reporter. His site PantherU.com covers UWM hoops. This part three of his introduction of Panther basketball to Missouri Valley Conference fans.
With some luck, it seems like the wait is coming to a close. The Missouri Valley Conference will take meetings this weekend, with an apparent vote coming through Monday on new membership to the MVC. In this piece, I hope to give you an idea of where the Milwaukee program could be in the next 25 years as an athletics program.
First, Let’s Settle the Name Thing
Maybe about 600 times in the past couple weeks, I’ve heard the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee referred to as a “hyphen” school. This is accurate, insofar as there is absolutely a hyphen in the name there. It has caused the university a considerable amount of headaches as it has grown from a national commuter university into a research behemoth of an urban university with a split student body between commuters and residents. Since its move to Division I in 1990, UWM has grown into a major university.
Having been present and active in the student votes of 2006 and 2009 that attempted to push a formal name change for the university, I can say that both votes were bungled in different ways.
First, the vote of 2006 suffered from being thrust upon the student body without much explanation. One group of students and faculty showed up one day wanting to change the name to Wisconsin State University. I’ll go on the record as saying we’d absolutely be in the MVC today if those 10 brave students who wrote in “Jedi Academy” got their way.
In 2009 there were only two names on the ballot, UWM and the University of Milwaukee. The poor timing of the vote happening just months after the recession caused students to be afraid the full-cost of the name change would come on their shoulders, increasing tuition for something they didn’t really understand.
So here we are, the “hyphen school” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Having spent the past couple weeks listening to the MVC community bring this up repeatedly – sometimes humorous, sometimes derisively – I wish I had been compiling all the references to take back to the chancellor’s office.
The athletic department, in the mean time, has been branded as the Milwaukee Panthers since 2005. This was in response to the Sweet 16 appearance, and athletic director Bud Haidet wanted to adopt the name that many had already come to call the program. It wasn’t until the last six years or so that national media has consistently called our program “Milwaukee.”
Because the MVC is an athletic conference and this is an athletic discussion, I’d advise MVC fans and media to simply refer to the athletic program as “Milwaukee.”
How does Milwaukee fit in the MVC?
As a university, Milwaukee is wildly different from much of the Missouri Valley Conference. It is a public, urban, doctoral research university; while it is urban like Loyola, Milwaukee serves a far larger student body and a different mission. Milwaukee is meant to be accessible, to serve the city of Milwaukee rather than the city serving it. Recent additions of the schools of Public Health and Freshwater Sciences (the latter of which is the only graduate school in the country) and other programs of the university are geared toward solving Milwaukee’s biggest problems.
Milwaukee is an R1 research school; the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education defines it as a doctoral university with the highest research activity. This would be the only school in the Missouri Valley Conference to carry this distinction; Illinois State, Loyola and Southern Illinois are at the next rung down with an R2 distinction.
That student body of nearly 28,000 students would be the largest in the Valley. In the last 15 years, Milwaukee has gradually converted from a mostly-commuter school to a mostly-residential university. Over 15,000 Milwaukee students live in the extended campus neighborhood, known locally as the East Side.
Just southwest of the Milwaukee campus is Panther Arena, the 10,783-seat basketball cathedral that was built in 1950 for the Milwaukee (now Atlanta) Hawks and has been the home of the Bucks, Marquette and Panthers for differing periods ever since. Since 2014, the Arena has undergone nearly $10 million in renovations.
Wisconsin seems far away for many schools; I’m sure many fans at Missouri State would rather see a potential better geographic fit such as Omaha. The truth is, while Milwaukee is certainly farther from Springfield than Omaha.
For the Valley schools not in Springfield or Des Moines, Milwaukee is a better fit. We’re just a few hours’ drive from Bradley and Illinois State, and while we’re no short drive from schools down south, we’re an absolute perfect fit for Loyola and, if you also add them, Valparaiso. Should the MVC add both Milwaukee and Valparaiso, the potential for in-roads into Chicago for recruiting is undeniable.
Detroit, the home of the conference tournament, is seven hours from Milwaukee; the Scottrade Center is only five and a half. With easy road trips to Loyola, Bradley, UNI, Illinois State and (potentially) Valpo, fans would be able to build a traveling group fairly easily. Milwaukee fans have traveled well to Green Bay, UIC and Valparaiso; and more MVC schools are within their reach than in the Horizon League. The last time we went to UNI, we sold out our allotment and plenty of fans ended up on the concourse level baseline bleachers at the McLeod Center.
Despite all the background stuff that went on in the firing of previous coach Rob Jeter, what the MVC should take away from that business was that Athletic Director Amanda Braun fired Rob Jeter for not succeeding at a high enough level. The coach who was five victories away from being the school’s all-time winningest coach, had 20 or more victories in four of his last seven seasons, just two years removed from his last NCAA Tournament appearance and winning two Big Ten road games wasn’t good enough to continue being the coach in the eyes of the athletic director.
These are the standards the AD has set. So the MVC community can be assured, the program’s commitment to winning in basketball is secure.
March and April 2016 were very trying times for Milwaukee Panthers fans. It was a loud and raucous conflict. A state senator even got publicly involved, calling for the chancellor to fire the athletic director.
The hiring of LaVall Jordan did quite a bit toward calming angry fans. Jordan has been universally accepted by the university community. Not being Bruce Pearl’s follow-up act does wonders, but the truth is coach Jordan has an affable, magnetic personality that many fans haven’t seen since Pearl.
Armed with one of the youngest teams in Division I coach Jordan had an inaugural season that was at times trying. However, by the time the team had made it to the Horizon League Tournament, the strides they had made became apparent. After dispatching the local Detroit Mercy Titans, Milwaukee took out #2 seeded Valparaiso and UIC on their way to a surprise championship game appearance, losing to Northern Kentucky.
A year later, the dust has largely settled. Fans streamed into sports bars in Milwaukee for the team’s run in the conference tournament. The team sold out a last-minute coach bus that was planned less than 24 hours before the championship game, and unfortunately had to turn away enough fans to fill two more buses just because local businesses didn’t have the available vehicles.
Financially, the university can easily make the move. Our basketball expenses align us with some of the best MVC programs. Operating expenses wouldn’t take a big jump because the Valley is mile-for-mile mostly the same distance as the Horizon League.
Perhaps the biggest financial benefit for the university in comparison to the other three potential programs of the MVC is the fact that at Milwaukee, basketball is not just king, it’s the only game in town. Valpo’s football program isn’t a hindrance – remember that the Pioneer League team doesn’t have scholarship costs, but Murray State has football, and while basketball is king they still divert resources to the Racers’ football program. At Omaha, hockey is king, and their finances are truly gruesome once you take a look at what university-owned Baxter Arena.
In other sports, Milwaukee has won the McCafferty Trophy – the all-sports award for the Horizon League – six times since the year 2000. We win in all kinds of sports, and the program is strong top-to-bottom. Engelmann Stadium, our home field for soccer, has been described by ESPN as the “Wrigley Field of College Soccer.”
It’s true that Milwaukee is third in the area after the Bucks and Marquette among basketball teams. The good news is that in an area of 1.2 million, there’s plenty of love to go around. Milwaukee also benefits from having 180,000 living alumni, with 77,000 of them living right here in Milwaukee County. In surveys, fans have cited ‘level of opponent’ as a reason that others around them don’t go to games. It’s hard to get excited for games against Youngstown State when you could be coming out for games with Illinois State.
If Valley fans look to the low attendance and poor record last season as a reason to turn away Milwaukee, all I’d like to point to is the mid 1990s addition of Evansville over Butler. At the time, the Valley passed on Butler because Evansville was winning more games and bringing plenty of fans to games. Butler wasn’t putting nearly the same amount of fans in the seats as Evansville.
Milwaukee is a massive, Big Ten-sized university that doesn’t have an albatross program like hockey or football dragging resources out of basketball. It’s a program that’s won in the recent past and will win in the near future. It’s a program with high standards and a fan base that is hungry for winning basketball in a conference that matters.
Look, there’s no crystal ball here. There’s no way of knowing whether or not Milwaukee would be a good addition to the MVC. However, Milwaukee has the infrastructure and the potential to make Missouri Valley Conference administrators look like absolute geniuses for adding them when they did. All that’s left is to pull the trigger.
Oh yeah – pull the trigger on Valparaiso and Murray State, too. It’s time the MVC ends its period of uncertainty in these times of conference realignment.
At Milwaukee, we think the Valley can be our forever home. We’re ready to sign the lease. Hand us the keys.