Yoder laid foundation for future success at Wisconsin

Steve Yoder’s career as a basketball man has taken him to gymnasiums across the country in the 21 years since he last coached a game at the University of Wisconsin. During that time, he has broadcast Big Ten games on television and served as a pro scout for the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks. In all, Yoder admits it has been a fulfilling, enjoyable, exciting ride.

But in Yoder’s down time, between the games and scouting reports, he still wonders what could have been if things had turned out differently at Wisconsin — if he could have stayed another year or two to help turn around a program destined for bigger things.

“I think it’s almost forgotten that I was even the guy that signed Michael Finley,” Yoder told FOXSportsWisconsin.com by phone this week. “The biggest disappointment for me was I didn’t get the opportunity to see those guys through. In all probability, if that was true, and I did, I’d probably still be coaching somewhere if I wanted to.”

Back in February 1992, Yoder announced that he would resign his post as Wisconsin’s coach following the season under pressure from his superiors. In 10 seasons with the Badgers, Yoder compiled a 128-165 record, including 50-130 in Big Ten play. As a result, then-athletic director Pat Richter told him he would not recommend renewing his contract, which had one year remaining and paid him $89,500 per season. It would also prove to be Yoder’s last head coaching stint.

The 73-year-old Yoder, who now lives in Sarasota, Fla, said he understood why the decision not to renew his contract was made. In his final season, the Badgers finished 13-18 overall and 4-14 in the Big Ten. Still, he had also been responsible for recruiting Finley, a standout prospect from Proviso East High School in Illinois, and point guard Tracy Webster. Both were only finishing up their freshmen seasons, and Webster averaged a team-best 17.1 points per game, while Finley averaged 12.3 points.

“It was a total rebuilding situation,” Yoder said. “But I knew what was going to happen. I recruited them. I signed them there. I knew that, finally, we had some guys on the team that could go toe to toe with the other teams. Not that players that we had signed before didn’t, we just didn’t have enough of them.”

Sure enough, Yoder’s premonition proved correct.

Stu Jackson took over as Wisconsin’s coach in 1992-93, and Finley became the Badgers’ star player on a team that finished 14-14. He averaged 22.1 points per game as a sophomore and Webster 14.1 points. They were the only two players to average in double figures in scoring that season.

In 1993-94, the Badgers finished 18-11 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. It marked Wisconsin’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 47 years. Finley averaged 20.4 points per game that season, finished his career as the program’s all-time leading scorer and went on to play 15 seasons in the NBA.

Yoder recalled spotting Finely at an all-star camp in Cincinnati the summer before his junior season of high school. While Yoder’s assistant coaches were taking him to various courts around the camp, he became fixated on Finley and moved him to the top of his recruiting list.

“He was everywhere,” Yoder said. “He’s rebounding, he’s taking the ball off the glass, he’s dribbling up the floor, he either attacks the basket or gives it up. He was just full of energy. I thought he was the best defensive player at that time that I had seen.

“The biggest thing with Michael was we needed to get him signed in the early signing period. It would have been a tough thing to get him. All we could do was sell him on an opportunity. He could come in and more or less be a pioneer at that time rather than coming in and hitching himself to somebody else’s wagon. He was a smart kid and he didn’t want to go very far from home.”

Yoder, who is from Indiana and coached at Ball State in Muncie, Ind., from 1977-82, moved to Indianapolis and served as a color analyst for ESPN and Raycom on Big Ten basketball games after his Wisconsin stint. He later began working as a scout for the Indiana Pacers in 2000 through his relationship with then-Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh. In 2003, he moved on to the Knicks and currently performs background checks on players for the Brooklyn Nets. His role is to find out the story behind perspective draft picks from coaches and acquaintances.

Even with his busy basketball schedule these days, Yoder still maintains a watchful eye on the Badgers. In addition to Finley’s arrival, he credits the building of the Kohl Center in 1998 and coach Bo Ryan’s arrival in 2001 for helping to permanently change the culture of Wisconsin basketball.

Of course, he can’t help but wonder if his legacy in the program was different.

“I’m not interested in opening up a can of worms,” Yoder said. “Because nobody wins when you do that. There’s not a coach in the country that doesn’t know or have a feel for when something could happen to him if he doesn’t win. At the time, I was surprised but I wasn’t shocked by it. I was surprised because I was never told, ‘Hey, if you don’t do this and you don’t do that, you’re going to get fired.’ That never was part of any conversation I ever had with anybody. But things happen and they move on.”

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