Rick Wulkow’s ability to persevere and compromise carried him from tiny Iowa gyms to the nation’s biggest high school circles.
The executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association for the past decade retires at the end of January.
Wulkow, who turns 70 in April, has overseen a prosperous era of the association in which boys’ high school sports expanded and stepped into the state’s biggest venues.
One of only four men to lead the association since 1923, Wulkow rose from a small-town Iowa farm boy to a leader who guided state and national athletic organizations while managing to quietly stay in the background.
He succeeded by his lifelong ability to transition — even after a farm accident mangled his right hand — and by surrounding himself with talented people.
“I’m not the expert in everything, but I’ve got experts in everything,” Wulkow said.
His legacy to thousands of Iowa high school athletes may be this: Although they not recognize him, or even his name, they can thank him for opportunities to wrestle or play basketball at Wells Fargo Arena or hit baseballs at Principal Park.
Wulkow grew up on a family farm outside the northwest Iowa town of Lytton, which today contains about 300 people.
Wulkow was an exceptional athlete, winning 15 high school letters. He was the Lytton High School star quarterback — he once threw a 99-yard touchdown pass, equal to the state record — a state track qualifier and a standout in baseball and basketball.
He was skilled at anything related to agriculture, too. Wulkow helped raise corn and soybeans and showed an Iowa State Fair champion Duroc gilt.
“If it wouldn’t have been for athletics, I probably would still be on the farm,” Wulkow said.
Wulkow had a strong role model for teaching and coach in Don Klink.
“I learned more math and science, because he demanded so much of that,” Wulkow said. “I was just a sponge to the stuff that he taught.”
Klink, who now lives in Armstrong, said he could tell Wulkow was capable of great things.
“He was a good athlete and student,” Klink said. “He was a good leader.”
Wulkow played sports at Buena Vista and earned his teaching degree.
He spent several years coaching and teaching, then moved into school administration. He also served as a referee, first at the high school level and then on college basketball courts.
Former Association director Bernie Saggau met with Wulkow while the up-and-comer was the principal at Jefferson.
Saggau asked Wulkow if he’d help host athletic rules meetings.
By 1980, Wulkow was extended another invitation — to take a job at the Association working with the state’s high school officials.
He would eventually become Saggau’s top assistant and replace his boss in 2005.
Through all of Wulkow’s duties, he was firmly grounded in the philosophy that high school activities help build better citizens.
“We provide values through participation in athletics and activities that they normally wouldn’t provide in a classroom,” Wulkow said. “You think about teamwork and learning how to win and lose gracefully, and leadership passed down from coaches.”
Wulkow was recovering from a serious hand injury in the hospital when he heard a nurse speculated about what would happen to his refereeing career.
“How’s he going to throw the jump ball?” she said.
Wulkow had helped bring in the crops on the family farm in 1982 when a devastating accident shredded his right hand.
He was alone, three-quarters of a mile from his parents’ house, when he reached into a jammed combine. He pulled his hand away, then rushed to the home in the dark, without a flashlight.
Wulkow lost his index finger in the accident. His middle finger was surgically reattached.
He considers himself fortunate. Injured and alone, he could have died out in the field.
“I could have easily lost both hands,” Wulkow said. “I knew I had to get to the house to get to the hospital.”
But the accident could have threatened his career as an official. From tossing the ball up to making hand signals, he had to learn his job all over again.
“One of my first thoughts was refereeing,” Wulkow said.
His hand was now “like a bucket with a hole in it,” he said.
Wulkow learned how to toss the ball with his left hand. He used his pinkie fingers to signal one and one free throws.
Tenaciously, he returned to officiating college basketball six weeks to the day of the accident.
“I was bound and determined not to miss any games,” Wulkow said.
Wulkow followed a series of strong-minded leaders at the Association. He brought diplomacy and a selflessness to his job.
For decades, the IHSAA had been controlled by the man in the executive’s chair. Lyle Quinn, who served from 1941-67, was known for his force of personality. So was Saggau, who guided the association from 1967 to 2005.
Wulkow brought a gentler style.
Those skills also served him in national leadership circles. He’s a past president of the National Federation of State High School Associations and the National Association of Sports Officials.
Bob Gardner, the executive director of the National Federation, said he’s known about Wulkow’s tact for several decades, since Gardner led Indiana’s athletic association.
“Rick is probably one of the most well-respected of our state athletic association directors,” Gardner said. “He was so knowledgeable about high school sports. He came at it from the perspective of serving students.”
Wulkow, who is not registered to a political party, was able to hear both sides of contentious issues, such as the discussion of national championships at the Federation.
“He was a unifying force,” Gardner said. “He is who he is and he doesn’t try to be someone he’s not. It was never about him.”
One national colleague told him: “You are the strongest moderate that I have ever been associated with.”
Wulkow brought that same sense of compromise to the state board of control meetings. He hired trusted and talented employees that helped him in his duties.
“I surrounded myself with really good people, and I’ve got their backs,” Wulkow said. “We sit in a windowless room and within four walls, we hash things out. When we come out, everyone knows the position of the High School Athletic Association.”
Wulkow, like a skilled politician, maintained friendships among everyone.
“There are people who you’re happy to see enter a room, and people who you’re happy to see leave a room — Rick was always someone you were happy to see,” Gardner said.
The decade of Wulkow’s direction has brought expansion and bigger budgets to boys’ athletics.
High school tournaments are held in big venues: Wells Fargo Arena, Drake Stadium, the UNI-Dome, Principal Park.
The state coed track meet, started in 2005, has become the nation’s largest state high school championship meet.
Football playoffs have expanded since 2008, with that sport bringing in more than $1 million in some seasons.
Bowling was brought into the fold of state sanctioned tournaments. The soccer tournament grew and moved to Des Moines.
More awards are handed out to state participants than ever before. The IHSAA’s website has been upgraded and has featured online rules and officiating information. Health issues such as concussion safety went to the forefront.
Wulkow leaves the Association with few regrets.
His biggest disappointment was his desire to alter the state basketball tournament format. He’s seen slumping attendance and wondered if holding first-round tournament games at regional sites, then capping things with a Final Four-type showdown at Wells Fargo might be best for Iowa.
“It’s still a great event, don’t get me wrong,” Wulkow said. “We don’t see the support that we used to see of bus after bus arriving because it was a big event. Other things have taken the place of that.”
Wulkow will walk away from his duties Jan. 31.
Quietly. Without a doubt.
“It’s not about me. It’s not about you,” Wulkow said, pointing to himself.
RICK WULKOW BIO
Born: April 3, 1945, Sac City
Family: Wife, Barb; three daughters, eight grandchildren
Education: Lytton High School; Buena Vista, teaching education degree; South Dakota, secondary school degree
Experience/honors: Coached and taught at Radcliffe, Denison… Served as football defensive coordinator at South Dakota… principal at Paullina and Jefferson… began working at the Iowa High School Athletic Association in 1980… became executive director in 2005… became a high school referee while in college, continuing until 1980… rose through the officiating ranks to work in the Big Eight and other college conferences… served as supervisor of Big Eight officials… was a member of the board of directors and president of the National Association of Sports Officials… served a term as the president of the National Federation of State High School Associations… member of the state high school officials and Buena Vista hall of fame.