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Inspired by Student-Athletes to Put Even More ‘Skin in the Game’
John Wildhack ’80 uses the word “connective tissue” to describe the ties that bind him and his family to Syracuse University. “It’s an incredibly unusual place that has been part of my family since the day I was born, with a passion for the Orange community that has persisted through the generations,” he says. His father, sister, brother and nephews all attended. His young son Tommy has his sights set on Syracuse. And that connective tissue grew even stronger this year, with a $1 million pledge from John and his wife, Amy, to the Athletics Framework supporting the future of the athletics program.
Clearly, Wildhack’s personal passion for his alma mater was the driving force behind his professional and philanthropic commitments. After graduating from the Newhouse School in 1980, Wildhack spent more than 30 years at ESPN, working his way up from production assistant to the executive suite. When he chose to leave the network in 2016 to become Syracuse University’s 11th director of athletics, his colleagues were dismayed but not surprised. “Personally and professionally, I am conflicted about this. I’m happy for John because I know how much he loves Syracuse and how great he will be in this role,” said “SportsCenter” anchor Scott Van Pelt.
Back on the hill, Wildhack immediately set his sights on securing a bright future for Syracuse Athletics, launching an in-house production unit and overseeing a $118 million investment in creating a new stadium experience. And he has been instrumental in securing significant philanthropic support, including a $25 million gift commitment from John Lally ’82 and his wife, Laura, that is described as transformative in its goal to elevate the student-athlete experience and help them achieve success on the field and in the classroom.
In announcing the Lallys’ gift, Wildhack had called it a catalyst and hoped-for inspiration for others to follow. Including himself. “When I ask people to give, I want them to know that I have skin in the game,” says Wildhack. “Amy and I are blessed to be in a position where we can invest in all the young men and women we have met and the generations of student-athletes yet to come.”
The Wildhacks have already put plenty of skin in the game as donors to Syracuse athletics and the Falk College, including a $200,000 pledge to the Orange Club Football Fund in 2018. They have also donated to the Lampe Athletics Complex Building Fund, the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center and the Falk College Complex General Renovation Fund.
Amy Wildhack says the student-athletes, coaches and staff have become extended members of the Wildhack family. “Getting to know these outstanding young men and women, along with all those dedicated to supporting their success, has been incredibly rewarding for our entire family, including our sons. They’ve inspired us these last four years and continue to do so, which compels us to want to make an investment in them,” she says.
This newest gift is similar in its intent to earlier gifts—to attract the best and brightest student-athletes to the University and create a best-in-class student experience. Wildhack says that can be a formidable challenge when competing against schools that have more resources. It takes creativity and entrepreneurial, innovative thinking. “We are not going to try to match every brick and mortar at those more well-endowed schools. We don’t need big offices or shiny structures. We need facilities that are functional, adaptable, technologically advanced, creative and impressive to our recruits and future coaches and trainers,” says Wildhack.
He and Amy intend for their newest gift to be used to enhance the student-athlete experience. He points to the need for an expanded academic support center and larger training rooms for football and Olympic sports. He also points to the Melo Center as inspirational in its beauty and practicality. The $19 million Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center opened in 2009, a 54,000-square-foot facility featuring two full-practice courts, a strength and conditioning room, advanced training suite and complete locker room facilities for men’s and women’s basketball teams.
“It’s beautiful but not over the top. If we had facilities like that for football, combined with our top-notch coaching staff and our ability to compete in the ACC and, on top of all that, a Syracuse University education, you’ve got an extraordinarily powerful recruiting tool,” says Wildhack.
Eventually, a physical space will be named for and dedicated in honor of John and Amy Wildhack’s generosity. But what the Wildhacks take most pride in is their investment in students’ futures. “Seeing our students graduate and build their careers and have professional success in a variety of fields is motivation enough,” says Wildhack. “Many of them talk about how vital Syracuse athletics was to their success. That’s what drives us and we hope will inspire others.”
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