Wildcat quarterback Brian Bliese graduated from Milton College in 1976. He followed Loyal and Ron Grovesteen and Joe Grafenauer as successive record-setting quarterbacks for Milton College. As a senior, Bliese guided the Wildcats to a 9-0 season. The team was ranked fifth in the nation, but only four teams were chosen to play in two National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division II bowls. Bliese established many school records later broken by his successor, Dave Krieg, who would go on to be a pro quarterback for 19 years.
A year after graduation, Bliese returned to Milton College as an assistant football coach and to start a women’s athletic program. For five years, he said he worked at the institution he loved before it closed in 1982.
“When we got the announcement, it was just crushing,” Bliese told the Milton Courier. “I can still feel the pain.”
Student athletes had already gone home for the summer and Bliese had to contact them and tell them the news.
Standing at a microphone at an event to honor Milton College coaches, Bliese began there: “1982 was a tragic time.”
But, he said, “Life goes on. Everyone goes on.”
Saturday night at The Gathering Place was a time for coaches and athletes to share fond memories and appreciation for one another.
Bliese, along with Dave Bentz, a former Wildcat football player, and others decided last fall that they needed to do something special for Rudy Gaddini, who coached Milton College football from 1970 until the college closed.
“And it wasn’t just Rudy,” Bliese said, “it was the other coaches that made the college special.”
Bliese told those at The Gathering Place to look around. The room was overflowing with people, the doors were open and some sat outside on the patio. In the 10-year anniversary newsletter, Bliese wrote, “The Spirit Lives.” “I think this is a tribute to that,” he said. “What made it special was the people who were our leaders, our coaches.”
Those were the people to whom they paid tribute: Bliese, Dale Race (basketball 1976-1979), Jim Johnson (baseball 1976-81), John Breidenbach (basketball 1979-1982) and Ron Hauser (soccer 1976-1981). Unable to attend was Coach Dick Deasy (basketball, baseball and golf 1970-75).
Throughout the night, the crowd chanted, “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy, Rudy.”
Gaddini was not only the football coach but the athletic director who hired the coaches.
Already at the podium, the first coach to be recognized was Bliese.
“I want to use this platform publically for the first time since 1977 to thank Rudy for having the faith and trust in me,” Bliese said. “He hired me to start the women’s athletics program at Milton College.”
In his first two years, Bliese coached club volleyball, basketball and softball in addition to helping with football. Then as intercollegiate teams, the women saw success at the conference and district levels and even advanced to the national tournament.
He pointed to “the ring leader of the group” Jean (Zielinski) Wollerman, a recruit from Menasha High School. She was a junior when the college closed, then went to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
“Starting women’s athletics was very special,”he said. In his 42nd year of coaching college athletics and today at Beloit College, Bliese said he wouldn’t have had that opportunity without Gaddini.
Dale Race said coaching basketball at Milton College was an experience he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“There was no entitlement with the players that played here at Milton College in any sport,” Race said. “These guys didn’t think they were entitled to a thing. And they didn’t have much. I tell you right now.”
The audience laughed.
“They played for the competitiveness, for the spirit of the game,” Race said. “They played because they wanted to play and they played because they got an opportunity to play.”
Race coached college basketball for 42 years. “This was a precious experience without any question,” said Race, who was 26 when he got the job at Milton College.
Johnson came to Milton College 44 years ago to be the head baseball coach and an assistant football coach. When they played Big 10 schools, he was asked how big Milton College was and dodged the question.
“We did our talking on the field,” he said. “We had each other’s back. We had just a heart for winning. Even to this day, each one of you have each other’s back.”
Breidenbach was hired by Race to be his assistant. When Race left, Breidenbach became the head coach.
When Milton College closed, Breidenbach’s wife was eight and half months pregnant. Two college boys who were thrown out of their dorms moved into the Breidenbachs’ basement.
Even with that, Breidenbach said, “I wouldn’t pass it (coaching) up for anything.”
“First thing Rudy taught me was stick-to-itiveness,” he said. Breidenbach remembers coming to the gym late at night and finding Gaddini there.
Breidenbach said the only thing he wished is that Gaddini had had a sense of humor. The crowd laughed.
Before introducing Hauser, Bliese said everyone should look at the photo of the soccer team.
Hauser, from south Florida in 1976, started the men’s soccer program. He was a coach and player. When he asked Gaddini about starting a program, Hauser remembers Gaddini saying, “We tried that but if you can get enough people, go ahead.”
Giving the go-ahead to bring another sport onto the college campus also speaks to who Gaddini is, Hauser said.
Krieg concluded the remarks about Gaddini. Krieg graduated from D.C. Everest High School. His coach there was Dick Ambrosino. Gaddini coached Ambrosino at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois. Ambrosino encouraged Krieg to go to Milton College, and he, too, was there Saturday evening.
Krieg, holding back emotion paused before talking about Gaddini.
“He means a lot to everybody here,” he said. “Coach, you mean a lot to this college, our lives.”
Again the crowd chanted, “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy.” Then, “hip, hip hurray, hip, hip hurray.”