As hall of fame classes go, the group inducted into the 2009 Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame was considered among the most influential in the organization's history.
There was University of Wisconsin athletic director and former football coach Barry Alvarez; former Badgers basketball player and UW benefactor Ab Nicholas; former Green Bay Packers president and CEO Bob Harlan; former UW wrestler and three-time world champion Lee Kemp; former UW basketball coach and top-ranked pro tennis player John Powless; and Judith Sweet, a UW graduate who became the first female secretary-treasurer in NCAA history.
The event, held that November in Milwaukee, generated considerable excitement and left many wondering which major players with state ties would fill out the next hall of fame class in 2011.
But just as enthusiasm swelled, it fizzled out. A lack of funding and the lack of a group to oversee the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame caused it to go dormant. Four years later, a team calling itself the Wisconsin Sports Legacy Group is trying to bring awareness to the cause and revitalize the Hall.
"It gets this little spurt of attention every two years when they induct new people," said group member Gregg Hoffmann. "And then it fades back into oblivion except if you happen to be on Fourth Street in Milwaukee and see the plaques hanging in the outdoor pavilion. There's really very little publicity on it during the two years between inductions."
Hoffmann, a former sports writer for various state publications, will host two tours of the Hall of Fame plaques in downtown Milwaukee for anyone interested on Saturday before the Milwaukee Brewers play the Atlanta Braves at Miller Park. The tours are scheduled for 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., and game time is set for 3:10 p.m.
The tour will begin with a video at the restaurant Major Goolsby's on Fourth Street and continue with a discussion of the Hall's history and its plaques.
Hoffmann said the Wisconsin Sports Legacy Group is a group of eight people from various backgrounds who have a passion for sports in the Cheesehead State. Though they aren't in a position to provide funding, they can bring attention to the Hall's importance with other groups. Hoffmann said negotiations for the rights to the Hall of Fame were ongoing with the Wisconsin Center District, though nothing had been finalized.
The origins of the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame date back to 1951 when the Milwaukee Arena was built. Joe Krueger convinced the state senate to charter the Hall of Fame, making Wisconsin the first state to have its own Hall. Large bronze plaques of the inductees hung in the entrance-way and remained there for nearly five decades until they were moved to an outdoor promenade outside the building, now called U.S. Cellular Arena.
"To me, in a time where we're trying to rebuild economically, trying to do a lot to rebuild the image of the state, why would you want to leave something that's existed for all those years to just go bye bye?" Hoffmann said. "I think it would be an absolute shame. Plus I do believe, and I've believed for 35 years, that if we did things to raise the profile of it a little more, I believe it could be a real jewel for the state."
Hoffmann has proposed several ideas, including developing interactive kiosks to be set up around the state. The kiosks would provide information on all of the Hall of Fame members, including biographies. Hoffmann also is working on an e-book that provides information on every Hall member that could be updated online for future inductees.
"We've got a sleeping giant downtown," said Wisconsin Sports Legacy Group member Rich Schabowski, a retired Harley Davidson machinist. "We've got a piece of coal that can be made a diamond. And there are so many great plaques there, so many great stories with famous Wisconsin athletes, sports figures, unusual people, interesting people."
Both Schabowski and Hoffmann remain confident the Hall's dormancy will end soon. Hoffmann even suggested the next Hall of Fame induction ceremony could come in fall 2014, although it would take months for voters across the state to decide on a class.
Several notable athletes with Wisconsin ties have yet to be inducted, and Schabowski and Hoffmann each mentioned the possibility of inducting former Milwaukee Bucks center Kareem Abdul Jabbar, former Wisconsin Badgers running back Ron Dayne and even former Packers quarterback Brett Favre.
"Not only the public needs to be aware of these famous athletes and future inductees, but these athletes out there need to be honored," Schabowski said. "They've done their work. People say, 'Why isn't this man or woman here?' Why? Because we let it go stagnant, and we don't want that. We want our kids, our grandchildren to read the plaques of the people we idolized as kids. We want them to have that opportunity also."
Conversations about the next Hall of Fame class remain a long way off. The first step in the process for Hoffmann and Schabowski is simply generating public interest. And they figure the walking tours and history lessons this weekend are a good place to start.
"When you're passionate about something and want to be successful, it generally happens," Schabowski said. "We're well versed in that and we'll do all we can. If it's 10 people or 100 people, we're going to pour our heart out to make these people have a really great experience."
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