Tom Oates: I've been luckiest columnist on face of the Earth

Tom Oates: I've been luckiest columnist on face of the Earth

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They say timing is everything and, for once, mine was impeccable.

As a sports columnist at the Wisconsin State Journal for the past 30 years, I’ve had a chance to witness up close the golden era of sports in Wisconsin. One by one, the state’s major sports teams, beaten down by decades of losing, figured out how to win games and compete for championships.

What a blast it has been covering and opining on the teams that revived the state’s incredible passion for sports, especially for someone who grew up in Appleton, graduated from the University of Wisconsin and worked briefly at the newspaper in Fort Atkinson before returning to Madison in 1980 as a prep writer for the WSJ. Well, yada, yada, yada and here it is 40 years later, time for me to announce my retirement from full-time columnizing.

OK, you can stop cheering now. Besides, you’re not getting rid of me that easily. I plan on contributing to the WSJ’s sports coverage on a part-time basis in the future. But that’s to be determined.

In the meantime, I’ve been the luckiest columnist on the face of the Earth. Covering sports in Wisconsin and especially in Madison has been a dream job, largely because I was never at a loss for things to write about. When I spoke with Mike McCarthy after he was fired by the Green Bay Packers late in his 13th season as coach, one thing I thanked him for was for us reporters almost never having to cover a meaningless game. Trust me, there were a lot of meaningless games prior to Wisconsin’s sports renaissance.

Starting with the Packers in 1992, continuing with UW football and men’s basketball in the 1990s and more recently with the Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks, the teams that generate passion from one end of Wisconsin to the other all became interesting. In golf, PGA Championships and U.S. Opens came to the state and individuals such as Steve Stricker, Jerry Kelly and Sherri Steinhauer competed with the best. Ditto for stock-car driver Matt Kenseth.

When I was a student at UW in the early 1970s, the biggest things on campus were antiwar protests and UW men’s hockey. Hockey relinquished that status when football and men’s basketball overcame decades of failure and started winning Big Ten Conference titles, elevating UW’s national athletic profile to unprecedented heights.

Following the 1963 Rose Bowl, the UW football team went 30 years without a Big Ten title or a return to Pasadena. But starting with that magical 1993 season under coach Barry Alvarez, the Badgers have won six conference titles and gone to seven Rose Bowls in 27 years.

UW men’s basketball failed to reach the NCAA tournament for 47 years before finally breaking through in 1994. In the past 27 years, the Badgers made the tournament 22 times and it would have been 23 had this year’s event been played. With coaching legends Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan as the catalysts, UW reached three Final Fours and won five Big Ten titles.

The Packers had only four winning records in 24 seasons before team president Bob Harlan hired general manager Ron Wolf and handed him the keys late in 1991. The team has reached the playoffs 20 times in the 28 years since then, winning two Super Bowls and playing in another.

Aggressive new ownership spurred revivals with the Brewers and Bucks. The Brewers went 25 years without making the playoffs, but have reached the postseason four times in the past 12 years under owner Mark Attanasio. The Bucks were the NBA’s poster child for mediocrity, getting past the first-round of the playoffs only once from 1990 to 2017, but owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry sparked a rebirth that has given them the best record in the NBA the past two seasons.

See what I mean? It’s been a special time for Wisconsin sports, an era where the formerly unthinkable has become commonplace.

The only downside to sustained success in sports is that fans become entitled. Even now, you hear occasional sniping. The Packers have wasted the careers of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers by winning only two Super Bowls. UW is good but can’t quite compete for national titles. The small-market Brewers and Bucks are fun to watch but can’t match up with the big boys, either.

I know it’s an old-guy take, but fans who say that don’t know how good they have it (or how hard it is to win a title). Had those fans lived through the dark ages, they would understand how lucky they are now. They’ve had superstar athletes and great coaches, managers and team executives. In most years and sports, state fans go into a season expecting to compete for a title.

I know I appreciate that, along with many other things.

I can’t say enough about the many true professionals who passed through the WSJ newsroom over the past 40 years. I have enormous respect for the beat writers I worked with in Madison and my media colleagues from around the state and nation who take great pride in doing a good job for you, the fans. I have thoroughly enjoyed the relationships with athletes, coaches and others I’ve developed over the years — yes, even the ones I went nose-to-nose with on occasion. And I have great appreciation for the fans, without whom my job would not have existed.

Unfortunately, too many late games on deadline, too many early morning flights and too much regimentation of media access to players and coaches have made the job less enjoyable than it once was. The COVID-19 pandemic stole the last few months of my career, but I’ve been heartened lately to see athletes and coaches of all colors finding their voice and using their platform to provide leadership on social issues. I’ve always said sports are more important than people think and they are proving it.

Finally, my philosophy as a columnist never wavered. I didn’t write to win contests or to impress my next employer, I wrote for the fans who picked up the newspaper — or clicked on the website — every day. Instead of a hot-take artist or click-bait specialist, I’ve always tried to look at sports from a rational, common-sense perspective. When people would ask me about a column I wrote, my response was always the same: “Did it make sense?”

I guess just trying to make sense makes me a dinosaur in today’s media world, but since 1980 I’ve done my best to educate, explain and entertain sports fans from Madison and Wisconsin. My fortuitous timing made that job a lot easier.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com

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