Camp Randall 100: Elroy Hirsch

Photo collage of images of former Wisconsin football player and athletic director Elroy Hirsch
Photo collage of images of former Wisconsin football player and athletic director Elroy Hirsch

The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.


“For some reason they liked me and they did everything they could to help me with the old guard. Both of those guys had my back and I’ve never had an opportunity to talk about their important role in my success.”

— Former UW Chancellor Donna Shalala on Elroy Hirsch and Arlie Mucks


BY ANDY BAGGOT | UWBadgers.com Insider

Photo of Elroy Hirsch and the Crazylegs Lane street sign
Elroy Hirsch

It’s hard to gauge where Elroy Hirsch had his greatest impact on Wisconsin athletics.

Was it as a one-and-done football player, a future college and pro football hall of famer, in 1942?

Was it as UW athletic director, a joyful ambassador for all things Badgers, from 1969 to ’87?

Or was it something less conspicuous?

Hirsch is in the first paragraph of any legitimate story chronicling the greatest characters in the annals of Wisconsin athletics.

He starred at halfback for one of the best football teams to call Camp Randall Stadium home — a club that became the first in program history to knock off a top-ranked opponent — and had his No. 40 retired.

He set NFL receiving records as a wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams and was so photogenic and charismatic that he appeared in three Hollywood films, including one about his life.

He returned to Madison to become UW athletic director and spent 18 years trying to boost the school’s national profile, a process defined by the introduction of Title IX and winning national championships in five sports.

But Hirsch did something behind the scenes that paved the way for the current brand of UW Athletics. He not only befriended one of the primary architects, he did a lot of the heavy lifting.

Hirsch and close friend Arlie Mucks, the energetic director of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, helped pave the way for Donna Shalala to enact her robust agenda as UW chancellor.

“For some reason they liked me and they did everything they could to help me with the old guard,” Shalala said of the two men. “Both of those guys had my back and I’ve never had an opportunity to talk about their important role in my success.”


“When he walked into a room he got respect. People in the know listened to him.”

— Former Mendota Gridiron Club Executive Director Wayne Esser on Elroy Hirsch


It was a time of great upheaval and angst in the Wisconsin Athletic Department.

In April of 1986, football coach Dave McClain died suddenly of a heart attack, giving way to defensive coordinator Jim Hilles on an interim basis for the ’86 season.

In November of 1986, the school hired Don Morton away from Tulsa to be the full-time football coach.

In June of 1987, Elroy Hirsch retired as AD and was replaced by Ade Sponberg, who prepped for the role by overseeing the small-school athletic department at North Dakota State for 14 years.

In November of 1988, Donna Shalala was hired away from Hunter (New York) College to become UW chancellor, replacing Bernard Cohen.

It didn’t take long for Shalala to determine that both Sponberg and Morton were out of their depth. Sponberg, his department awash in what would become a $2.1 million budget shortfall, and Morton, he of the 6-27 overall record, were let go in November of 1989.

“The president of the system (Kenneth Shaw) and the governor (Tommy Thompson) warned me about firing Morton,” Shalala said. “They were concerned that there would sort of be blood on the streets and we couldn’t hire anyone better. Tommy said the boys downtown think it will be a real problem trying to find another coach.”

Shalala gave that task to Pat Richter when he took over as AD. Richter subsequently hired Notre Dame defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez as football coach. The fortunes of UW Athletics have been on the rise ever since thanks mainly to a stable, respectable, profitable football program, and Hirsch played a major role in that project.

Hirsch was retained as a consultant for the athletic department after his retirement and Shalala invested heavily in his instincts and expertise.

“She leaned on him,” said Wayne Esser, the former executive director of the Mendota Gridiron Club. “When he walked into a room he got respect. People in the know listened to him.”

 

Photo of Pat Richter (R), UW Athletics Director, and athletics director emeritus Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch watch runners cross the finish line of the annual Crazylegs Classic run in Camp Randall stadium in 1990.
Pat Richter (right), UW Athletics Director, and athletics director emeritus Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch watch runners cross the finish line of the annual Crazylegs Classic run in Camp Randall stadium in 1990.

 

At one point Shalala asked Hirsch about all the disgruntled boosters and their behind-the-scenes power.

“He said, ‘I’ll take care of all the boys downtown. You just go do the right thing,’” Shalala recounted.

Hirsch and Mucks were “two guys that you never thought would have embraced me,” Shalala said, noting that she was a “New York liberal” and “they were hardly feminists.”

Yet the three clicked, in part because they shared outgoing personalities and an affinity for the Badgers.

“That’s the difference when you come into an institution and you come in as an outsider,” Shalala said. “I could charm the faculty because I was really an academic. I could pick insiders for academic posts as I did — (future UW chancellors) David Ward and John Wiley — but at the end of the day I didn’t come from big-time athletics. They just decided they’d do everything they could to help me.”

“Obviously Pat Richter was critical in picking coaches and coming in and changing the culture, but those two men sort of adopted me. They cared so much about the university. They did everything they could to make me successful.”

Hirsch, from Wausau, only played one season for the Badgers due to World War II, but it was a memorable one. UW went 8-1-1 overall, including a 17-7 victory over top-ranked Ohio State at Camp Randall.

Hirsch probably had a greater impact at UW as an administrator and ambassador. He oversaw the introduction of women’s sports, hired the first black men’s basketball coach in Big Ten history in Bill Cofield and saw five programs — men’s and women’s cross country, men’s hockey and men’s and women’s rowing — win national titles.

Hirsch’s fingerprints can be found all over Camp Randall Stadium.

Photo of Elroy Hirsch singing "Varsity" with the Wisconsin cheerleaders
Elroy Hirsch sings “Varsity” with the Wisconsin cheerleaders
Thin Photo collage of images of former Wisconsin football player and athletic director Elroy Hirsch