Hard-won battles for new UW Athletic Hall of Fame inductee
Tamara Flarup enjoyed a 40-year career in communications at UW Athletics and a front row seat for the rise of women's sports.
There are likely many good stories among the dozen individuals in the 2021 class of inductees into the University of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, announced last week. Few, if any, will top the greeting Tamara J. Flarup received upon landing in Madison in summer 1977 as the first ever full-time director of women’s sports information for UW Athletics.
Call it, “When Tam Met Glenn.”
The setting was the bar at Namio’s, a popular restaurant on South Park Street that at the time hosted the luncheon meetings of the Madison Pen and Mike Club, a sports media ensemble whose members were rarely averse to a second drink at lunch.
Flarup, who is being inducted — the ceremony is in September — for her distinguished 40-year career in sports information and website services, waited until the meeting was over to introduce herself to Glenn Miller, the sports editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. She found him in the bar.
Flarup likely mentioned how she looked forward to their working together and how excited she was in her new her job promoting the Badger women athletes. What she best remembers is Miller’s response.
“He told me right up front there would never be any women’s sports news in his sports pages,” Flarup says.
Welcome to Madison.
The sports editor wasn’t being wholly truthful. Women’s sports had received some grudging coverage in the State Journal and would continue to up until Miller’s retirement in 1984. And, in fairness, Miller was hardly alone in his willful disregard for women’s athletics among his counterparts in the male sports establishment.
“I don’t want to seem like I’m whining because there were so many battles,” Flarup says. “But there were so many battles!”
Flarup was an athlete herself, a golfer. Growing up in Iowa, there was no girls team at her high school, but she and a friend were good enough players that they talked a gym teacher into creating one. Flarup played four years of varsity golf and competed in state tournaments. She kept playing while attending Iowa State University, where she had a double major in journalism and physical education.
Flarup considered a teaching career, but instead landed a full-time job in women’s sports information — rare at the time — at the University of Kansas. Her annual salary: $6,000.
After a year or so, Flarup heard that UW–Madison was looking for a full-time women’s sports information director.
When I interviewed Flarup for my forthcoming book about Kit Saunders-Nordeen, who was named UW’s first director of women’s athletics in 1974, Flarup recalled their 1977 meeting: “At the time, Kit lived on Lake Kegonsa. We did my interview in a canoe going across the lake to a friend’s house where there was a barbecue taking place. I was in the front of the canoe. Kit was in the back. It was the funniest interview I’d ever done.”
But they clicked, and, together with another recent addition to the department, Paula Bonner, fought the good fight in those early years, building a successful program.
Among the highlights: A 1982 run to the elite eight of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, or AIAW, national basketball tournament. The Badgers beat Colorado, 60-59, in the round of 16, then traveled to Austin to face the powerhouse University of Texas. Flarup was part of a boisterous Badger contingent that made the trip.
“Nobody expected us to get that far,” Flarup says. The Longhorns won, 72-61. “They had the smallest post player in the nation. She was like five-feet-nine. But she could jump out of the gym.”
Two years later, the AIAW had folded — and the Badger women won their first NCAA championship, in cross-country.
If there was one event — one night — that completed the ascendance of UW women’s athletics, it was Nov. 30, 1990, when the Badgers hosted Illinois in a first-round NCAA volleyball tournament match. Flarup sat in the upper deck of the Field House with the recently retired Kit Saunders, and they watched, thrilled, as 10,935 fans packed the arena. The two women had tears in their eyes. “We always knew,” Flarup told me, “that this would happen for women’s sports at Wisconsin.” They thought it would be basketball, not volleyball. Two years later, women’s basketball did fill the Field House, when the Badgers hosted an NCAA regional.
Flarup ended her career at UW athletics with a 15-year run as director of website services. “I liked the challenge and the creativity,” she says, and there was plenty of both. There were seven separate website redesigns during her tenure; the last one delayed her retirement a year, until August 2016.
These days the best place to find Flarup is the golf course. “I am in four leagues all starting this week!” she emailed me in May, when I was bothering her to confirm something for my book. More recently, I asked Flarup if she ever dreamed in those tough early years that she might end up in the UW Athletic Hall of Fame.
Her answer: “Everything was so new. I felt a lot of energy from Kit. I could see she was a visionary. I wanted to go along with her as long as I possibly could. A Hall of Fame career for myself? No. But I knew a great opportunity was here. I knew that.”
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