Big Men on Campus
Loyal, high-powered boosters support university athletic programs with hearts, minds and wallets
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"Being 'in the know' is not important to me," Rechter confirms. "Being a part of making something happen is." From the rear of the 12-seat section attached to his Freedom Hall luxury box, Rechter rarely raises his voice. He's not the type to jump to his feet in protest or raise a fist in jubilation. He's a student of the game, eager to appreciate a well-executed zone trap or a perfectly timed backdoor cut. That said, he'd rather see Louisville play sloppy and win than lose a classic at the buzzer. "I'm a fan of basketball, but I'm a Louisville fan," he says. "I've got a connection with this program that pro sports fans will never have with their teams. It's a touchy-feely connection that has nothing to do with being an owner."
In 1967, Rechter was a 35-year-old with four small children when he moved from Chicago to Louisville, a city he barely knew. He owned and ran the family mining and construction business with his two brothers. Future NBA pros Wes Unseld and Butch Beard were playing for the Cardinals, and Denny Crum would soon begin a three-decade coaching run. Rechter remembers sitting high above the court in the old Freedom Hall, the only seats he could afford. His wife, Bonnie, is a former basketball cheerleader, and Cardinals games were their splurge. "We adopted Louisville as our school, since that's where we were living," he says. "We'd get a babysitter and come to the games."
His father, who'd loved college sports, died in a plane crash when Rechter was 14. Rechter turned to basketball for both solace and a father figure. Getting connected to Louisville reminded him of who he was, and where he'd been. And he was gratified that Louisville seemed to need him. "There's usually a need on the part of an athletic department," he says. "More often than not, it isn't a financial need. Which is rather surprising to most of my friends, who figure my connection is only about giving money."
Rechter became close to Crum and watched him win national championships in 1980 and 1986. He started getting named to various committees. And when a new athletic director decided it was time for Crum to retire, Rechter lent his private plane to fetch Pitino for an interview.
These days, his mining and construction business comprises 45 stone quarries in six states and 48 asphalt plants, and he builds highways and bridges from Alabama to Indiana. Beyond that, he own businesses in an array of industries, from gas exploration to zinc dust to music (Rechter's a partner in a Louisville jazz club). One of his underground quarries outside Louisville is now a secure data center for companies fearing above-ground disasters. A restaurant space attached to Louisville's minor-league ballpark houses a brewpub and one of the city's most ambitious restaurants, both owned by Rechter.
Yet with all that, and a bout with prostate cancer thrown in, his involvement with the Cardinals has only grown. Sitting in the stands during an early-season game, Rechter ticks off his social activities for the previous week. "We went to an NCAA women's volleyball regional, then a basketball game, then another basketball game," he says. "We watched the football team play Connecticut on television, and now here we are at another basketball game. We go to softball games, ladies basketball, soccer games, field hockey games. Not all of them, but four or five a year." Some years, he has attended as many as 25 of the Cardinals' 28 or 29 regular-season men's basketball games, flying around the country—and then followed the NCAA tournament run.
Rechter doesn't consider that commitment extraordinary. Booster friends who offer similar support are far busier than he is, he says, and to prove it, he calls Mitch McConnell, the second-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate. McConnell has the same relationship with Louisville football that Rechter does with Louisville basketball. "To give you a sense of what my priorities are, I missed one game [last] season," McConnell says. "It was a Thursday night and we were in session. I missed another one two years ago, when I was in Iraq. Louisville football is my major extracurricular interest."
The idea of knowing what's happening inside the athletic department holds little currency for McConnell, who is an insider on matters of national and world affairs. Hobnobbing with a football coach is hardly compelling when you hobnob with world leaders. Yet McConnell, who produces a Louisville calendar each Christmas for his friends, is as hooked as any fan and as eager to learn the latest doings of his team as someone listening to sports talk radio.
He tells of being on the Senate floor for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. During a break, the senators repaired to the cloakroom to discuss the historical events that were transpiring. Not McConnell, who would later that year read a tribute to former Cardinals football coach Howard Schnellenberger into the Congressional Record. Looking for something to clear his mind, he picked up a phone and called then-football coach John L. Smith, who was out recruiting. "We were after a big recruit, and my first thought as we walked off the floor of the Senate was, did we get him?" McConnell says.
"I couldn't believe it," says Smith, now at Michigan State. "That's the level of his concern for his school and his football program. And I say 'his' because he has a feeling of ownership, in the best possible way. You just wish you had more like him." Louisville's failures and successes can affect McConnell's state of mind, as is the case with many rabid fans, and on this occasion it almost changed the course of history. As Smith recalls, Louisville didn't manage to land its prized recruit. Coincidentally or not, McConnell voted to convict.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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