There was plenty happening in the Madison sports world Feb. 7, 1997.
University of Wisconsin men’s soccer coach Jim Launder had been fired — remember that saga? — and that was the obvious top story of the day. UW men’s hockey goalie Kirk Daubenspeck became the program’s career leader in saves after making 37 of them in a 5-2 home win over Colorado College that night. The Badgers women’s basketball team also was in action, dropping a game to Indiana at the UW Field House.
At the bottom right corner on front page of The Capital Times’ sports section the next morning was a game story from Madison West’s 70-56 victory over visiting Madison Edgewood in a non-conference prep boys basketball game.
My first professional byline.
The lede — or first few paragraphs of the story, for the uninitiated — was cheesy, about what you’d expect from a 20-year-old rookie:
Johnny Richardson didn’t feel well at all this past week.
Friday night, the Madison West senior did his best to make Madison Edgewood coach Chris Zwettler’s stomach feel queasy.
I remember getting up early the next morning to buy a copy of the paper — OK, let’s be honest, several copies — and being thrilled/shocked to find my story on the front page. Delight turned to dismay when I reached the 10th paragraph and noticed I’d identified a West sophomore guard as Reece Davis.
Rece Davis was in the early stages of a long and successful career at ESPN. Reece Gaines was in the early stages of a brilliant career with the Regents and would go on to star at Louisville and get selected in the first round of the 2003 NBA draft.
Reece Davis? There was nobody on the court by that name in the West-Edgewood game, a brutal error that could have been avoided if I’d been a little more careful.
Now whose stomach was feeling queasy?
While that mistake haunts me to this day, it provided a valuable lesson. It also made me want to redeem myself.
I got a call the following Monday morning from my sports editor at the time, Joe Hart, who had three more prep events he wanted me to cover that week. My initial reaction: Phew. My immediate response: Yes, yes and yes.
Joe told me a couple years later, after being elevated from stringer to staff member at the Cap Times, that one of the things that impressed him about me was that I rarely said no when he needed something covered. It was no-brainer for me; I was getting paid to write about sports and it didn’t matter to me whether it was a high school event, a Madison Monsters pro hockey game, the City Golf tournament or a Home Talent League baseball game.
If anything, I’ve proven I’m no journeyman. More than 24 years later, the Capital Newspapers headquarters at 1901 Fish Hatchery Road is still my home away from home, the only place I’ve worked.
Oh sure, there were some changes along the way, the biggest one coming in 2009 when I moved across the newsroom to the Wisconsin State Journal.
I’d covered games at Lambeau Field here and there over the years, but in 2010 I was offered the Packers beat smack dab in the middle of training camp. You already know my answer, though I never would have predicted what was coming: A wild regular season followed by four postseason games, all on the road, an exhausting and magical ride that ended with a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV near Dallas.
I was back at AT&T Stadium a little more than three years later, this time covering a UW men’s basketball program that finally had gotten over the hump and reached the Final Four. The next season, when Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers once again advanced to the national semifinals, I was there in Indianapolis to chronicle the highest of highs (a win over Kentucky) and the lowest of lows (a loss to Duke) in a span of 48 hours.
The 2020-21 campaign marked my 10th season on the UW hoops beat, which is how many of you probably became familiar with my byline.
For those of you who don’t know me: I’m Jim Polzin, the new Lee Sports Wisconsin columnist.
That’s right, it’s time for another change, and I’m fired up to start this new role. Consider this the frequently-asked-questions portion of this introductory column:
Are you the new Tom Oates? Greg Gard asked me that recently and I’ll tell you what I told him: That’s an insult to Oatesy, who is mostly retired but (thankfully) will continue to offer his perspective occasionally. I’m not going to try to be Tom Oates, who started writing for the State Journal in 1980 and wrote columns for three decades, because we’re two different personalities with different writing styles. The good news is Oatesy and I have spent countless hours with one another — in cars, on planes, at games, sharing bottles of wine — and I’ve learned a lot from the guy I like to refer to as the Walking Wisconsin Sports Almanac.
Oates Osmosis isn’t enough. What do you know about Wisconsin sports? This is probably a good time to let you know about my roots. I grew up in Clintonville, home of Dick Bennett. I was there for every step of the postseason trail when the Truckers were a regular in the WIAA state boys basketball tournament in the late 1980s. I went from fan to (average) player and was fortunate to be coached by hall of famers in both basketball (Carl Bruggink) and baseball (Bill Kinziger).
I grew up cheering for the Badgers, Packers, Brewers and Bucks. One of my earliest sports memories was the 1982 World Series. I know how much Wisconsin sports fans care about their teams because I’ve been in their shoes. I turned in my fan card long ago, but I’m no less invested in the Wisconsin sports landscape. I just see things through a more objective lens these days.
What do you want from the reader? Feedback, for starters. If you disagree with something I wrote — or just want to say something positive — don’t hesitate to drop me an email. Plus, I’m always looking for stories to tell. If you have an interesting topic or subject to cover, please share it with me.
For those of you who already are subscribers in any of our Lee Sports Wisconsin markets — Madison, Kenosha, La Crosse and Racine, to name a few — thank you. If you aren’t a digital subscriber, please consider taking advantage of one of our great offers. Subscribers will have access to exclusive content — more details to come — and I look forward to building relationships with the people who give us their time and money.
What an exciting time to start this job. UW has a new athletic director, while Aaron Rodgers may or may not be the starting quarterback for the Packers come September. I’m excited to dive into those — and other — storylines.
A quick shout-out to those who helped me get to this point. I’ve crossed paths with a lot of great people in this profession over the years and I picked a lot of their brains over the course of a week while deciding whether this was a job I wanted to pursue. Thanks to all of you for your insight and encouragement.
I’m surrounded by great teammates at the State Journal — fellow writers, copy editors, editors, photographers, executives — and I’m so thankful to be part of that amazing group.
My biggest fan is my mom, Pat, who strongly believes I’ve never written a bad story. She’s incredibly biased, but I love her. My dad, Ralland, would have gotten a kick out of this promotion but he’s not around to see it. Shortly after he had a stroke in November 2015, I was with him in the hospital and he’d lost his ability to speak. I could tell he was struggling to say something, so I took a stab at what it might be: “Dad, I know you’re proud of me.” And I know he’d be feeling that way today.
The MVP of Team Polzin is my wife, Molle, who has spent a lot of winters in a single-parent role because I’m off in State College or West Lafayette or Lincoln covering games. She’s a trooper and has been a great sounding board over the years. To my sons, Ben and Ryan, thanks for being supportive and understanding when Dad isn’t around.
And, of course, special thanks to Reece Davis. I hope you enjoyed your moment in the spotlight.
Best of the beat: Take a look back at 5 of Jim Polzin's favorite stories from his sports reporting career
I was helping out on the UW football beat late in the summer of 2010 when our Packers writer left for another job. Most of training camp was done, the season opener was a couple weeks away, and I had a 4-year-old and 7-month-old at home.
But who turns down the chance to cover the Packers? I had no idea at the time that the season would stretch into February, but a wild ride ended with Aaron Rodgers and Co. beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. That night, including writing this game story, is a blur.
Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdown passes -- two to Greg Jennings -- and the Packers withstood injuries to Charles Woodson and Donald Driver to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 and claim their fourth Super Bowl championship.
BO RYAN'S TOUGH LOVE
It was hard to choose a story from a magical stretch that included back-to-back trips to the Final Four for the UW men’s basketball program. I did plenty of stories on Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and others during that stretch, but this one on that group’s leader stood out because it gave some insight into Bo Ryan’s coaching style.
This story ruffled some feathers inside the program, though that wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to give readers a look at how Ryan went about getting the best out of his players.
I wrote a lot about Nigel Hayes over his four seasons with the Badgers because he was such a fascinating guy on and off the court. For one story his junior season, I spent a morning with him, talking over breakfast and sitting through one of his business classes.
This one was about his relationship with his stepfather, Albert Davis Sr. I don’t even remember what made me think of doing this story or how I pitched it to him, but I do remember sitting in folding chairs in a hallway at the Kohl Center and being amazed at how much he was willing to share. It turned out to be a fun story to tell.
HAPP'S HARD WORK
Ethan Happ’s name is all over the UW men’s basketball record book. He scored a lot of points, grabbed a lot of rebounds, dished out a lot of assists, made a lot of steals and blocked a lot of shots. He also missed a lot of free throws.
I got a ton of messages, either via email or social media, asking why Happ didn’t spend more time working on his shot. I knew his work ethic wasn’t the issue because I spent a lot of time waiting to interview him after practices as he worked on shooting with coaches or teammates or student-managers. Still, I had no idea just how much time he spent working on his shot away from practice until I began the process of reporting this story.
GARD ERA BEGINS
One moment I’ll never forget is when Bo Ryan walked into the Kohl Center media room late on the night of Dec. 15, 2015, and the person moderating his postgame news conference said Ryan would open with a statement.
Ryan never opened with a statement, always choosing to go straight to questions. In that split-second before Ryan started talking, I knew: He was retiring. And so began a crazy night and crazy week that included wrapping up Ryan’s time at UW and moving on to the Greg Gard era.
Fans certainly knew who Gard was at that point because he’d been Ryan’s longtime assistant. But I wanted to talk to as many people as I could for a thorough story on the guy taking over the program after his legendary mentor’s departure.
Gard will make his debut as UW's interim coach on Wednesday night when the Badgers (7-5) face UW-Green Bay (6-4) at the Kohl Center.