When former Nicolet Principal Dr. Elliott Moeser first discussed the athletic director's job with Jim Liska shortly after the retirement of Frank Wolf in 1996, he made it very clear what Liska's first and primary responsibility was going to be.
"My job was to support them (the athletic teams) and to be there," Liska recalled Moeser saying. "He said that people notice when you are there, and I'm going to expect that to be a major part of your job."
And Liska, who officially retired two weeks ago but who was still cleaning up loose ends last week, took the job and Moeser's directive to heart.
"In my mind, I had to be at every sport at least once a season," Liska said. "So if that meant the ski team was out at Little Swiss for a meet, I would go or if the hockey team was downtown for a game, I would attend that, too."
"There you get to talk to the kids, the coaches, the parents. You listen and you learn."
And that latter trait was something the self-proclaimed "life-long learner" was always doing.
Liska always proved to be a quick study in the world of sports. He was good-naturedly "blackmailed" into coaching boys gymnastics back at his first job in the Menomonee Falls School District more than 35 years ago by another old crafty athletic director Milt Blake (who, in return, promised Liska that he would get a coveted assistant track coach's job).
With only four physical education credits in gymnastics at UW-Whitewater as background, Liska jumped right in and eventually made himself so proficient that he judged the last three WIAA State Meets in boys gymnastics (the sport was dropped in the early 1980s).
And his dignity and class came through when in 1975, a friend advised him to look into a position in the Nicolet School District. He was torn about the choice because he said he was "very happy in the Falls" and also because he had a really good cross country team he was looking forward to coaching at Falls East that fall.
The Nicolet offer proved to be too good to turn down, but he still felt so bad about it that he wrote individual letters to each of the members of the Falls East cross country team explaining his decision.
Liska, a journalism and English teacher at heart, also ran the boys cross country program up until 1990 ("Those guys were all heart," he said of his state-bound final team) and the boys track team up through the mid-1980s. He also proved his versatility early in his career when he was asked to coach sophomore football for a few seasons.
"And we even had a winning record one year with only about 11 to 15 players," he said. "We played a radar defense with a bunch of little guys up front and had a lot of fun." One thing he is relieved about as he faces retirement, is that it seems the moribund football program is finally moving forward with a young, energetic staff.
Meanwhile, life continued to change fast for Liska. He became Executive Director (i.e. mediator of disputes) of the North Shore Conference in 1984 and it's a job he still holds and plans to hang onto for awhile.
The only regrets Liska has about his job is that he wasn't able to see enough of either his wife, Cathy, or his daughters (Alexandra and Cathryn) as much as would have liked due to its demands. Liska could have worked in that top-down fashion when he took over the Athletic Director's job, but he didn't.
"There were pluses and there were minuses," he said, "but to have had the chance to work with people dedicated to working with students was just a great opportunity. To hire them, put them in place and then step back and have them prosper was always amazing to see.
"Especially when the kids were having a good time."
Liska is especially grateful to long-time athletic secretary Donna Amerell, who made his life simpler and easier.
In turn, Liska's position will be filled by a complicated three-part arrangement, including the superintendent, principal and recreation department director.
Liska, in the meantime, will start volunteering at Second Harvest Food Bank, teach a bit at Concordia and will keep a golf date on the first day of school next fall with one-year retiree and old coaching friend Jim Sperl.
"He told me he didn't want to have me thinking about that (the first day of school), because in one form or another, I've been going to school for more than 60 years," Liska said. "He said someone did that for him last year."
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