When he moved to Ohio with his wife in 2005, Jon Reneau put away his whistle and stopped officiating high school basketball games after 27 years on the court.
But one weekend a year, he’d drive back to Madison for the WIAA Boys State Basketball Tournament at the Kohl Center and return to a familiar crowd of colleagues and friends. The annual tournament begins Thursday, with 20 teams from around the state playing for championships in five divisions.
Along with the players and coaches come parents and fans in cars festively decorated for the occasion, from the state’s big cities and small towns like Cuba City and Oostburg.
“It’s kind of like the Mecca for everybody involved with high school basketball in the state of Wisconsin, whether it be officials or coaches or whatever,” Reneau said. “It’s like a magnet — it draws you back.”
The commute is not as extreme as Reneau’s, but the sentiment is the same for a dedicated group of people who always block off this weekend on their calendars. For the roughly 65 on- and off-court officials, team hosts and television crew members, the tournament is a yearly reunion. And this year, it’s a big milestone: It’s the 100th boys basketball state tournament.
Dave Kelliher of Madison has worked the score table between the benches on and off since 1968 and has been a referee. He works the tournament in appreciation of what the players and coaches have accomplished in reaching the final weekend.
It’s a time to catch up with friends from around the state, too.
“I think you might find that the world as it exists is a big place, but when you get into the state tournament, it’s a very close-knit community,” Kelliher said.
When she retired from teaching at Madison West High School in 2000, Peg Mueller became a team host for the three days of the state tournament along with her husband, Greg. They serve as a kind of chaperone, getting players and coaches where they need to be and answering questions on procedures.
Over each of the three days of the tournament, from the time the first team gets to the Kohl Center in the morning to the time the last player leaves the building at night, the hosts are in action, shuffling from one team to the next.
As a former coach who won the first Class A girls basketball state title in 1976, Mueller feeds off the behind-the-scenes interactions with coaches, several of whom she has become close with over the years.
For instance, whenever La Crosse Aquinas made it to the Kohl Center, former coach Rick Schneider wanted Mueller as his team’s host, she said.
“Not that I do any better job than anybody else, but they get superstitious,” Mueller said. “And when they win, they want that host again.”
Aquinas won championships in 2008, 2011 and 2013.
Producer Bob Goessling of WKOW-TV has been a part of the television production of the tournament for 30 years, and some of his crew members have been around longer than that.
“They could work the NCAA tournament. They could work all kinds of stuff,” Goessling said. “But they like coming back for this tournament, for the atmosphere and the excitement of it.”
Most people will never get to see the work of the dozens of people who keep the tournament running smoothly, or only catch a glimpse of them in the background as the athletes take to the court. And the behind-the-scenes crew is fine with that.
They take pride in the production as a whole, said Deb Hauser, the WIAA associate director who is in charge of the basketball tournaments.
“I think it gets into their blood,” she said.
The most memorable state tournament momen for an older generation of fans likely is LaMont Weaver’s 55-foot bank shot at the buzzer for Beloit Memorial in the 1969 championship game.
Dave Kelliher was sitting at the UW Field House score table, not far from where Weaver launched the left-handed shot that sent the game into overtime. Beloit ended up beating Neenah in a second overtime.
Kelliher pondered whether the impact of “The Shot,” as it has been known, would have been different in another venue or time.
To him, no way.
“It was still the state tournament,” he said, “and that’s what it was about.”
State has been contested in Madison in 95 of the last 96 years (the 1936 edition was in Wisconsin Rapids), and Kelliher has been there for around half of them.
He’s a 1962 graduate of old Madison Central High School, which closed its doors in 1969, and went to state games starting in the 1950s.
The Central teams he played on never made it to state — “Our teams were never good enough to get there, and that’s nobody’s fault but our own,” he said — but he did make it onto the big stage in 1979 as a referee.
He and Gordy Bass were the officials in the final state boys game played at the Field House in 1997.
Whether on the court or at the score table, he worked with one prevailing thought: make what already would be a memorable experience for any teenager the best possible.
"It's a great culmination for a lot of kids and a lot of their dreams to be able to play in it," Kelliher said.
Kelliher and Jon Reneau both have officiated games and worked the four-person scorers crew at state, first at the Field House and now at the Kohl Center, the tournament's venue since 1998.
The Field House had a mystique to it, Reneau said. From an official's perspective, he said, you could practically feel the fans on top of you because of their close proximity to the court. And even getting to the court was sometimes an adventure, walking through the public concourses with an escort from tournament officials and, sometimes, the police.
It's an event that's made big by little things. Reneau chuckled at thoughts of the old days in the Field House where the scoreboard was lowered between games so team names could be changed.
"In a way, it's kind of hokey, but it's also what brings everybody back," Reneau said of the small details. "There's just something about it, the traditions and all that kind of stuff."
After living in Ohio from 2005 to 2012, Reneau and his wife moved back to Madison.
After all, it's a lot closer for him to be part of what he called the "well-oiled machine" that keeps the tournament running.
"It is just a little family affair, to be perfectly honest with you," he said.
Kelliher said he's coming out of a retirement of sorts to work on the score table this year as a tribute to Bass, the longtime timer for WIAA and Wisconsin basketball games who passed away in December.
"But I'm looking forward to seeing some of the coaches that I don't normally get to see during the regular year," Kelliher said. "There's that unique bond."
Team hosts like Peg and Greg Mueller do a little bit of everything during the three days of the tournament.
Their main role is to make sure players and coaches are where they’re supposed to be at the right time. They go over how players should line up for television introductions. They make sure the team scorekeeper gets a seat and that the bench has enough towels.
In short, team hosts keep WIAA personnel from having to address the small issues so they can focus on the big picture.
But things can get a little hairy sometimes, and a team host has to tell a college basketball coach that, no, he can’t go in to see one of his recruits in the locker room.
Peg Mueller said she had to turn away former Marquette coach Tom Crean in the mid-2000s.
“I had to keep him out of that locker room, and that was a challenge,” Mueller said. “To the point where (Crean said), ‘Well, I bet (Badgers coach) Bo Ryan can come down here.’ And I said Bo Ryan doesn’t even try to come down here, if you want to know the truth of it.”
She knows certain coaches like to have a cup of coffee. She knows others are a nervous wreck before state games and make frequent trips to the restroom.
She knows players from some teams are going to be looking for interaction before a game, while others are going to be immersed in their headphones.
Former Randolph coach Bob Haffele’s organizational skills were memorable to Mueller, who said the coach always had backup jerseys in case one needed to be swapped out after getting bloodied.
Mueller always gets to host Germantown teams coached by Steve Showalter, whom she said keeps his team relaxed by being relaxed himself.
Bob Letsch’s teams at Racine St. Catherine’s are among the easiest to manage, she said, because of the way the coach keeps control of the locker room.
“Those boys, they don’t take their jersey off and throw it on the bench. Those boys take their jersey off and fold it up and put it on the chair,” Mueller said. “There’s so much tradition associated with that. He’s pretty old-school. The kids dearly love him.”
Many of the team hosts are former coaches like Peg and Greg Mueller, the latter of whom was an assistant baseball coach at Madison Memorial.
So the locker-room interaction is nothing new to them, the WIAA’s Deb Hauser said, and might actually scratch an itch.
“They kind of groove on just seeing how other people handle their teams,” Hauser said. “They’re in the locker room, they hear the strategy, they’re sitting right on the bench. They become a part of the team. And I think it’s been a real positive experience. They’re all retired from (coaching), and so now it’s just a way of saying, jeez, how would I handle that?”
Despite her connections to boys basketball coaches in her roughly 15 years as a team host, Peg Mueller’s background shows more of an association with girls basketball coaches.
She coached girls basketball at West for 21 seasons, winning 304 games and two state titles.
But now the girls tournament is in Green Bay, part of a decision made in 2012 after a stretch of time when it appeared Madison might also lose the boys tournament.
The WIAA wanted more security in dates that the Kohl Center would be available for state tournaments in March, but the UW athletic department was working through the possibility of needing the facility for Badgers men’s hockey games.
In the end, Madison kept the boys tournament but lost the girls.
“The boys playing at the Kohl Center in Madison, I think that’s just very, very special,” Hauser said. “With this being the 100th year, the (convention and visitor’s bureau) and sports commission have really upped their game to partner with us to really make this a special event and have done a really, really nice job to advertise and promote it within the city of Madison.”
And it has kept the Muellers in place to help teams navigate the Kohl Center maze and the nervous times of the state tournament.
The team hosts have more than just a fleeting connection with the teams.
“We kind of have a little competition among the hosts — what’s your record?” Peg Mueller said.
Bob Goessling has been compiling historical materials at his WKOW-TV office for a one-hour television special to mark the 100th tournament, but one artifact had him somewhat flummoxed.
Along with varieties of archival films from state tournaments long past came a set of six 78 rpm records that had the full radio broadcast of Hurley’s 1949 state championship victory.
“I’m trying to scrounge up a 78 rpm record player now,” Goessling said.
The tournament was broadcast for the first time in 1960. Goessling joined the production in the 1980s, running the replays on reel-to-reel machines. He’s now the producer, supervising the telecast from the third row of stations inside a production truck that sits in the Kohl Center loading dock.
The man who sits one row ahead of him, director Allen Pierce, worked his first tournament in 1981 as a cameraman.
Over the years, they’ve sent the tournament around to affiliates all over the state and now over the Internet, expanding its appeal beyond just the walls of the Field House or the Kohl Center.
Part of their jobs is to convey the emotion of a team advancing in the tournament or seeing its season end.
But they also get to bond as a working unit, sometimes for the only time in a year when the longtime crew members are in the same place.
“It can be a small-town atmosphere there when everybody’s getting together,” Goessling said.
Pierce attended the state tournament for the first time in 1973, when he played in the McFarland band as the Spartans won the Class B championship.
Eight years later, he was working there and has barely looked back, even as he has worked in the truck for national sporting events. By the late 1980s, he was directing the broadcast on a regular basis.
“There’s lots and lots of emotions, so our hope is to make sure we’re covering that as fairly as possible,” Pierce said. “I rely a lot on my camera people, who have been working, some of them, almost as long as I have on these things.”
Television has been a significant component of the behind-the-scenes tournament production, and in some ways Wisconsin viewers have it better than most.
Wisconsin is the only state where all the games are on a public channel, Hauser said.
With an experienced crew that also works pro sporting events, the production quality is high, Goessling said.
In the end, the crew wants the broadcast to match the nature of the tournament itself.
“We’ve all seen how professionalism has filtered down from the pro sports to the college sports, and in some cases it has filtered down to high school sports,” Goessling said. “But I really think (the state tournament) is a special thing.”