Big Men on Campus
Loyal, high-powered boosters support university athletic programs with hearts, minds and wallets
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
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"I hear you're hiring Stoops," he said.
"How'd you find out?" del Conte asked.
"Aw," Moreno said, "Click told the President."
So far, we've avoided the word booster, a staple of salacious headlines and NCAA investigations. To the casual fan, boosters are shady operators bearing envelopes stuffed with money, looking to entice some prep phenom to attend State U. But the likes of Pickens and Click—and, on a more distant level, Kentucky's Ashley Judd, Notre Dame's Regis Philbin, Temple's Bill Cosby and other big-name supporters—are boosters, too. "I'm proud to be called a booster," says Louisville's Sam Rechter. "That's what I am."
Coaches understand the dichotomy. "The worst type of booster is the guy who wants to meet players," says Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, who has experienced the good and the bad while coaching at Boston University, Providence and Kentucky, and as a player at Massachusetts. In Rechter, he believes he has one of the best. "He never interferes, never second-guesses," Pitino says. "He's in the background, there to support the program whenever you need him. He's not interested in spending time with players."
"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.
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