April 22, 2013
Laramie, Wyo. -
Everyone associated with the University of Wyoming's intercollegiate athletics department, and certainly fans of Cowboy and Cowgirl athletics understand the importance of the Cowboy Joe Club. All of us would find it difficult, if not impossible, to move forward without it.
While its primary focus is to provide UW's more than 350 student-athletes with academic scholarship and educational support, it does so much more. Special programs, coaching enhancements, UW Cheer, Rodeo, Animal Science, the Cowboy Joe Pony and the Western Thunder Marching Band are numbered among its beneficiaries.
There isn't a more successful operation of its kind in the nation, given Wyoming's population and alumni base. Through 2012, it was close to being the largest club--by membership--of any athletic fundraising organization in the Mountain West. Last year's figures included 4,710 members and annual fund numbers of $2.5 million! It has been a tremendous success story.
Not long ago Senior Associate Athletics Director for Development Randy Welniak and I spent an enjoyable afternoon visiting with a couple of the Club's pioneers. Pioneers aren't easy to find these days. Two guys who couldn't possibly have imagined how successful their idea would become, but whose vision was extraordinary.
Mike Schutte and Earl Madsen, a pair of terrific, passionate Wyoming fans, visited with Randy and I about how and why they started the Cowboy Joe Club. Madsen, who grew up in Greybull, Wyo., came up with the idea because he felt if Wyoming was to compete on a national level--and they believed deeply that it could--it needed additional financial support above what it was receiving from the Wyoming Legislature. In the athletic scheme of things--the Cowboys began playing football in 1893 for instance--the Club is a youngster. It was officially incorporated in 1969, in Denver. The operation moved to Laramie in 1970. According to Madsen, he got the idea from the Iowa Hawkeye's fundraising club. Much of what he wanted to accomplish was being done there. Madsen, living in the Denver area at the time, called Schutte, another Greybull graduate and former Cowboy running back, also living in Denver. Madsen explained his idea about a UW booster club and Schutte jumped on board immediately.
The two began discussing their idea in 1968, just as Cowboy football was bursting onto the national stage after an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. They decided to take their plan to Lloyd Eaton, the Pokes' head football coach at the time, and see what he thought of it.
"We told Lloyd that we felt Wyoming athletics needed an organization to raise additional monies for the department," Madsen said. "At the time we were thinking primarily about football since it had become a national program, but we knew it could help all of UW's athletic programs. Believe it or not our original goal was to raise $10,000. We thought that money could be used for travel so that coaches could recruit all over the country. Lloyd told us he thought it would be a great idea. After talking with him we were pretty fired up. As alums we loved our university and the athletics department, and wanted to help."
Cowboy assistant coaches Paul Roach and Fritz Shurmur came to Denver the summer prior to the 1969 football season and sat down with Shutte and Madsen, as well as two other passionate Wyoming fans Earl Cochran and Dick Scarlett. "By the time we had finished with our meeting, we had decided that the goal should be raised to $40,000," Schutte said. "We couldn't wait to get started."
As with any pioneering effort, there were concerns. "We didn't want to conflict with the UW Alumni Association or the UW Foundation," Schutte said. "We sat down with representatives of both of those entities as well as UW President William Carlson. Everyone was supportive, especially Dr. Carlson, and that really moved us forward."
The two were especially grateful to John Black who was the Alumni Director at the time. "John was terrific," Madsen said. "He allowed us to utilize his mailing list, and that really got us going. The Alumni Association was a huge help.
"We also got Chuck Harkins (sports editor of the Casper Star Tribune at the time) to write a column about the idea," Madsen continued. "That exposure really helped us get the idea off the ground."
An attorney by trade, Madsen felt that for the Club to reach its full potential it had to be tax exempt. That idea separated Cowboy Joe from other clubs, and paved the way to its unprecedented success.
The Cowboy Joe Club was officially incorporated in 1969. A dinner at a Denver hotel was its inauguration. Schutte, who would later become a UW Trustee, as well as chairman of the UW Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame Committee, was the first president. While he, Madsen and Cochran were the originators of the idea, there were some very important names and great UW supports who were vital to the Club during its infancy. Frank Mendicino and Jim LaFleiche were instrumental in nurturing the idea in its early years, as were Al Wolfe, Frank Norris and Dick Skinner. Mendicino, who remains very involved with UW today, was the first director of the Cowboy Joe Club. The Club has had 10 different executive directors and 24 presidents since the beginning.
The first official location of the Club was a red brick house on the corner of Fifth and Garfield in Laramie. It was nearly a decade later when UW President Edward Jennings brought it under the UW umbrella, and moved its offices into the athletic department.
According to Madsen and Schutte, the fledgling organization took some time to get off the ground. "I think we raised between $5,000 and $10,000 initially, and we had something in the neighborhood of 200 members. A lot of people really weren't very interested in the beginning." Thanks to a dedicated few that would change quickly.
"I don't know if we would have had a Cowboy Joe Club without Earl," Schutte said. "He had seen what Iowa was doing and really felt Wyoming had to have a fundraising club in order to compete on a national level. He did the legal work for us, and got the tax-exempt charter. That was a huge key."
The Cowboy Joe Club's legacy is legendary now. Its success is due to the pride, spirit and passion of Madsen and Schutte and thousands of great Cowboy and Cowgirl fans and supporters. Its impact on UW and its intercollegiate athletics department is incalculable.