99 and counting: WIAC approaches its centennial season
The Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference has an anniversary on tap that deserves some monumental fanfare.
The 2012-13 athletic season will mark 100 years of competition in the ninth-oldest conference in the NCAA. Considering the seismographic shifting of schools and conferences at the top levels today, longevity alone is worth a party.
"It's been on the radar screen for some time," said WIAC Commissioner Gary Karner. "When some of our athletic director's would retire in the last couple of years I would often comment or joke with them saying that we hoped they would stick around until the centennial.
"About three years ago we started talking about it, and it picked up steam the last two years. We really looked at this as a three-year celebration, if you will."
Back in 1913, it was known as the State Normal School Conference, thankfully morphing into more sophisticated monikers over the years like the Wisconsin State University Conference (WSUC) and later, the WIAC.
Superior, River Falls, Stevens Point, La Crosse, Oshkosh, Whitewater and Platteville were all there at the baptism, with Stout joining the group a year later, and Eau Claire hooking up in 1917. Milwaukee was on board from the get-go until clearing out in 1964, but the core remains intact and thriving at the Division III level.
"About 80 percent of our student athletes are from the state of Wisconsin," said Karner, a UW-Stevens Point graduate. "One of the secrets to our success is the kids that we get from the state of Wisconsin. It's a great feeder program for us. They're good athletes, good citizens and students, and that goes a long way toward our success."
Karner and the conference can back up the chest-thumping. The WIAC has national championship banners sprinkled throughout the annals of its near century of athletic completion, not to mention athletes who have used the in-state platform to springboard and compete on some of the biggest stages in all of sports.
There have been Olympians like track and field star Andrew Rock (UW-La Crosse), men's gymnast Casey Edwards (UW-Oshkosh) and Melissa Mueller (UW-Oshkosh) from women's track and field. And the professional ranks have been littered over the years with former WIAC greats like Tom Newberry (UW-La Crosse) in football, Terry Porter (UW-Stevens Point) in basketball and Wisconsin-born-and-raised baseball players Jim Gantner (UW-Oshkosh), Jerry Augustine (UW-La Crosse), Bob Wickman (UW-Whitewater), Jarrod Washburn (UW-Oshkosh) and current Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (UW-Stevens Point).
The approaching centennial seemed like the perfect vehicle to corral all this talent and give the conference some past and present props. The daunting task was created to form All-Time teams comprised of elite performers from the last 10 decades and recognize those individuals who laid the foundation.
"(It's) extremely difficult," acknowledged Karner. "Anytime you select an all-time anything, I don't care if it's a restaurant or movie or whatever, it's going to generate controversy because there are many people that are deserving that you can possibly include. This was no exception; we could have added dozens and dozens more student athletes and coaches to the teams without question, but we had to draw the line somewhere."
Karner didn't sequester himself in a room armed with media guides and record books to determine the best of the bunch in each sport. He enlisted the help of some of the greatest historians the WIAC knows.
"We engaged our sports information directors," said Karner. "They're the ones who have the most data anyway and, quite frankly, our SIDs are some of the most objective people we have on our campuses. This is their business, looking at numbers and statistics and compiling information. To me at least, it seemed like a natural to have this group engaged in the process."
But even this meeting of the minds didn't shake out obvious choices for everyone to agree upon and help sort out this prestigious group of athletes from a 100-year span. The early years provided morsels of data at best, and with sports evolving over decades and generations, even detailed stats would never stack up side-by-side with the numbers posted in the modern era.
"We tried to look at it from a standpoint of trying to compare contemporaries as opposed to comparing people between eras," said Karner. "The success of this conference, which is a good thing, made it even more difficult."
Case in point: when the brain trust of this project crunched the initial numbers and awards, the bar was set incredibly high just to get on the board for consideration. Some of the WIAC's premiere participants have been track and field athletes, where the starting qualification began with five-time national champions in the sport.
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