A Deeper Look @ UW-Milwaukee
Editor: This is a special guest article to introduce Missouri Valley Conference fans to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, from Jimmy Lemke (PantherU.com). The Panthers, Nebraska-Omaha, Murray State and Valparaiso continue to be the four schools believed to be under consideration to replace the now departed Wichita State.
Ahoy MVC fans! I’ve covered the Milwaukee Panthers Basketball program for nearly 12 years. I started out as a student reporter in the fall of 2005 covering the Panthers for the weekly campus newspaper, the UWM Post. The following year I became Sports Editor and held that position until spring 2010 (yes, I was a super senior). In 2009 I started PantherU.com as a way to continue coverage of the basketball program. Until this season I co-hosted the now-defunct HoriZone Roundtable, a podcast with Cleveland State alumnus Bob McDonald where we gave great attention to Horizon League basketball. For purposes of maintaining a uniform structure to this piece, we’ll follow Paul Oren’s lead in his “Deeper Look @ Valparaiso” from last week. Here’s to hoping I can live up to his lofty standards.
First: A History Lesson
One thing Missouri Valley fans need to understand about the Milwaukee Panthers is that our history is rather short. The program has only been in Division I since 1990, aside from spending the 1970’s as a D-I independent. So while the basketball team has been around since 1896, our history really begins in 1990.
Early basketball teams were actually strong. Steve Antrim built a team that hit its high point in 1992-93, when the Panthers defeated Wisconsin and a slew of postseason teams. Unfortunately, as a provisional member of D-I they were not yet eligible for the NCAA Tournament. The NIT also passed on Milwaukee that year, and the team wouldn’t be relevant again for a decade. Antrim was fired in 1995 after it was discovered he had been stealing from players’ meal plans, and his replacement – former Marquette standout Ric Cobb – recruited a few good players but completely bombed as a head coach, going 28-81 before getting fired in 1999.
Cobb did recruit Clay Tucker and Ronnie Jones, players who would be key to the first NCAA Tournament team in 2003. Bo Ryan came from Platteville and started building a program, adding players who figured to be long-term projects. It’s entirely possible that Bo Ryan would have been their coach, except he himself was not built for the long-term in Milwaukee, leaving to take the Wisconsin job in 2001. Enter Bruce Pearl.
Campus had never seen anything like him. Bruce Pearl was so much more than a coach; he was a promoter, the Don King to the team’s Mike Tyson. As the team became championship-caliber in 2003, Pearl had also been barnstorming around campus building support. By the time the Panthers made it to the NCAA Tournament, the fans were rabid. In building the team, Pearl elected to complement Cobb and Ryan’s recruits with transfers and junior college players, leading to the 2005 Sweet 16.
This will be seen, forever and always, as our first “golden era.” Fans gravitated to Pearl’s larger-than-life personality. Had he been a used car salesman, he might have become a millionaire that way. He truly knew how to get someone excited for Panther Basketball. The Sweet 16 team easily dispatched of Alabama and overcame adversity in beating Boston College, but playing the #1 overall seed Illinois in Chicago was too much to take, and the Panthers’ first NCAA Tournament run came to an end. Tennessee came calling, and again Milwaukee was left without a coach.
When he left, athletic director Bud Haidet was left looking for his third coach in five years. So when Rob Jeter was hired to replace Pearl, Haidet was looking for someone long-term – someone he felt could build the program and make it a permanent home. While a member of Bo Ryan’s staff, Jeter had recruited some of the players that made up his senior class in 2005-06, Chris Hill and Adrian Tigert. He had a bit of a learning curve, eventually tailoring his coaching style to the players on the roster, and Milwaukee made it to the NCAA Tournament again in 2006, losing to eventual national champion Florida.
With Jeter being considered for the vacant position at Iowa State, Haidet gave Jeter a contract extension that became a real point of contention with fans for a long time. It included no buyout clause, which made it incredibly expensive should the university want to buy him out. It also included language that automatically extended the deal in the case of certain benchmarks being reached. Some of them seemed to make more sense than others.
By the time Haidet retired, Jeter had been slowly building the program – from 9 wins in 2006-07 to 14 and eventually 17 victories in the 2008-09 season. Poised to finally reach potential, Jeter’s Panthers ran into a powerful road block in 2010 and 2011 in the form of the Butler Bulldogs, national runners-up both years. In each year, Milwaukee put the next strongest team on the court in the conference tournament. Unfortunately, the Horizon League’s status as a one-bid league left the second-best team on the outside looking in if they didn’t win the conference tournament.
The Panthers’ strength was cyclical; they just happened to peak at the same time as Butler. By the time the Bulldogs had fallen off, so had Milwaukee – the 20-14 team in 2011-12 was decent but not great. It’s that phrase that has largely described the basketball program on the court since 2011. A move to the on-campus Klotsche Center for 2012-13 deflated a team that was playing in Kareem and Oscar’s House. The private failures of a compliance officer caused the program to be banned from the postseason in 2014-15, taking the wind out of their sails after winning the Horizon League Championship in 2014.
There were some controversial moves made by athletic director Amanda Braun when she decided to cancel the team’s 2015 scheduled summer foreign trip. The team went 20-13, and finished 10-8 in the Horizon League, losing in the conference tournament to eventual champion Green Bay. Then Braun declined to accept any invitations for the program to play in the post-season and denied the program had received any invites, even though all three third-tier tournaments had done so.
Whether or not these moves were justified is a matter of opinion. However, Amanda Braun, like George Koonce before her, appeared to be aiming to remove Rob Jeter from the head coaching position; if the team had a more successful 2015-16 campaign, it would have made this move more difficult.
It’s no secret athletic directors want their own coaches. Braun’s problem was that she seriously misjudged the fan base’s reaction. While many fans favored the removal of the coach, many of those same fans were angry with how it was handled, as well as things Braun had done and was alleged to have done to make the move possible. (I should disclose at this point that I’m one of her chief detractors)
The Milwaukee fan base has not been able to agree on much in the past ten years. Jeter’s biggest problem, especially in early years, was that he wasn’t Bruce Pearl. He wasn’t the used car salesman fans loved so much, so quickly, and it caused the program to lose fans over time. Our fan base became quite impatient with Jeter, and it had gotten to the point that it probably wasn’t going to change until he was gone.
Tomorrow – A New Day!