UW Athletic Hall of Fame: Herb Kohl | Wisconsin Badgers (2024)

Men's Basketball Andy Baggot

Kohl’s generosity led to major inflection point in rebirth of UW Athletics

BY ANDY BAGGOT
UWBadgers.com Insider

MADISON, Wis. — Where were you when you learned that Wisconsin graduate and U.S. Senator Herb Kohl said he would donate $25 million to build an arena for basketball and hockey at his alma mater?

"That was the week I hired Dick Bennett," former UW athletic director Pat Richter said of his newest men's basketball coach. "It was toward the end of the week and timing-wise it would have been announced on (a) Saturday and I said we couldn't do it on (that) Saturday because that was April Fool's Day. Of course, I didn't want that date, so I think we had the press conference announcing Dick on (a) Friday afternoon.

"Afterward, I went back to my office and, a few minutes later, I received a call from Sandy Wilcox at the UW Foundation. He said, 'We're having a press conference tomorrow to announce a major gift from Herb Kohl for a new basketball facility.'"

Tomorrow as in April Fool's Day.

"That news about Senator Kohl was certainly more of a surprise and more of a topic for an April Fool's joke than we could have imagined," Richter wrote in a text. "It was unforgettable."

That's a good word to describe Kohl, who died Dec. 27, 2023 at the age of 88. He was best known as a U.S. Senator for 24 years, a multi-millionaire businessman and the former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA.

Kohl will be inducted into the UW Athletic Hall of Fame exactly 28 years since that day in 1996 when ground was broken on the $76.4 million multi-purpose facility that now bears his name.

Wilcox, president of the UW Foundation from 1988 to 2010, said Kohl's gift – the largest private donation in school history – came without pretense or hoopla.

"Herb just gave the money and backed off," Wilcox said. "He was pretty much hands off."

UW Athletic Hall of Fame: Herb Kohl | Wisconsin Badgers (1)

Kohl, whose family owned the Kohl's grocery and department stores, graduated from Wisconsin in 1956. His roommate was Bud Selig, the former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Kohl was as unassuming as he was humble.

"He was a real character," Wilcox said. "He always wore the same old raincoat. I think he did it just to make himself look poor."

Wilcox called Kohl "just a delightful guy."

There were three major inflection points in the rebirth of Wisconsin Athletics. The first involved the three-part hiring of Donna Shalala as chancellor in 1988, her successful pursuit of Richter as AD in 1989 and his subsequent investment in Barry Alvarez as football coach in 1990.

That was followed by the breakthrough moment in 1993 when Alvarez guided the Badgers to the first of three Big Ten Conference titles and three Rose Bowl triumphs of his tenure.

That gave way to Kohl's remarkable sense of generosity. The Kohl Center officially opened for business on Jan. 17, 1998.

UW Athletic Hall of Fame: Herb Kohl | Wisconsin Badgers (2)

Al Fish, the senior associate AD who ultimately oversaw the Kohl Center project as well as the Camp Randall Stadium renovation in the early 2000s, said Kohl was the obvious person to underwrite the lead gift and that a couple of proposals were sent out to him.

"He's very thoughtful and thorough about thinking about where he makes an investment because he looks at this not as a gift, but as an investment," Fish recalled.

During a meeting at Kohl's office, Richter, Wilcox and then-chancellor David Ward summarized their plan for the $25 million.

"What a difference this would make for basketball (and) how we were under the gun because we had exiting and safety problems in the Field House that the state had ordered us to fix in five years or we couldn't host people in there for basketball anymore," Fish said. "Within not a really long time, Herb goes, 'OK, I'll do the lead gift for $25 million.'"

The news was no April Fool's Day joke.

"It was like a lightning bolt came in," Fish said. "We felt like we had a chance for a transformational moment.

"That meant that now we're going to take basketball and hockey to a first-class facility and we can now take our three revenue sports up to a whole new level.

"All that rippled out of Herb Kohl saying yes to donating $25 million."

BEST OF THREE

One: Talk about generous
In addition to Kohl's gift, an additional $10 million donation came courtesy of Ab Nicholas and his wife Nancy Johnson and $2.5 million came from the Kellner family.

Two: Basketball was the priority
According to Fish, Kohl wanted the dimensions of his namesake facility to be driven by basketball, hence the cantilever positioning of the three levels. "That has to be first," said Kohl, who didn't like the old Bradley Center, where his Bucks used to play. "I know he was very upset about the (Bradley Center)," Wilcox said. "He said it was built for hockey, not basketball."

Three: A very unpretentious man
"You would never know he was wealthy or that he was a senator," Wilcox said of Kohl, a Democrat who purchased the Bucks for nearly $20 million and sold them for $550 million. "I just really liked him. He was a very nice guy. He was easy to be around."

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UW Athletic Hall of Fame: Herb Kohl | Wisconsin Badgers (2024)
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