Herb Kohl’s legacy as Bucks owner

As you probably know, Bucks owner Herb Kohl has had a day job as a US senator since 1989.  As you may have heard, Friday he announced he would not seek reelection in 2012.  But fear not, Kohl made it clear during a press conference he will remain the committed owner of the Milwaukee Bucks.  While he acknowledged there would one day be a new owner, Kohl said he still very much enjoyed owning the team.

One comment made by Kohl during the press conference really stood out to me. Charles Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal reported the Bucks owner said, “We have a great organization and a great tradition.”

While this is essentially an expected comment, it does open the door to examine exactly what kind of tradition has been established with Kohl at the helm of the Bucks.

Kohl purchased the team from Jim Fitzgerald and a group of partners in 1985. At the time, there was much speculation ownership groups from outside of Wisconsin would buy and subsequently relocate the Bucks. A lot of the relocation speculation derived from the fact the team was playing in the Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center. With a maximum capacity around 10,000, the MECCA, as it was best known, was the smallest arena in the NBA. However, Kohl saved the day by swooping in and buying the team, guaranteeing the Bucks would stay in Wisconsin.

Kohl became beloved, and rightfully so, for ensuring the state’s only NBA franchise would stay home. Even today, Kohl makes it clear he will not sell the team unless the new owner is committed to keeping the Bucks in Wisconsin.

Although it is impossible to know for sure whether a different owner would have in fact relocated the team, Kohl has to be given at least some respect for making sure NBA basketball continues to be played in the Dairy State.

But what about the actual on-court play of the Bucks during his tenure? This is where the criticisms emerge.

Since the 85-86 season, the Bucks have a 982-1,118 record, good for a 48 percent winning percentage. While coaches and general managers have come and gone during that time, Kohl has been the one constant.

Sure, every team goes through rough stretches and the Bucks did win almost 50 percent of their games, maybe we should give the guy a break. It would be a whole lot easier to do that if the Bucks punctuated their usual mediocrity with a few deep playoff runs during Kohl’s tenure.

The deepest the team has gone in the playoffs under Kohl has been the Eastern Conference Finals, once during the 85-86 season, his first season as owner, and more recently during the 00-01 season. In the 17 years from the inaugural Bucks season until Kohl purchased the team in 1985, the Bucks made it to at least the finals of their conference six times. In the 26 seasons since, they have done it twice.

Under Kohl, the Bucks went through a stretch of seven seasons, from the 91-92 season until the 97-98 season, where they did not make the playoffs. The best single season record during Kohl’s ownership was his first year, when the team went 57-25. The only other instances the team hit 50 wins were Kohl’s second year as owner and during the 00-01 season.

As you can see, the Bucks had a lot of success immediately following Kohl’s purchase of the Bucks and not much since. And it isn’t like he inherited an aging team in 85-86. The top five scorers on that team were all under 30 years old.

I am not trying to place the blame solely on Kohl for the Bucks lack of success during the last 25 years, but he certainly is at least partly at fault. While it is great Kohl wants to talk about the grand tradition of the team, he needs to reexamine the role he has played in it.

Josh Hilgendorf is a contributor at the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter. Become a fan on Facebook (right sidebar).

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