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The woman credited with helping to revive University of Wisconsin football says she might still be on its campus, were it not for a call from the 42nd President of the United States.

“I really didn’t want to leave,” Donna Shalala said of her time as UW-Madison Chancellor. “If Bill Clinton hadn’t twisted my arm, I would have stayed at Wisconsin forever.”

But Shalala did leave UW-Madison in 1993 to to join Clinton’s Cabinet, serving as Health and Human Services secretary. After Clinton left office, she took her next job: president at the University of Miami.

Both schools will be in the national spotlight Dec. 30, when the Miami Hurricanes and the Wisconsin Badgers square off in the 2017 Orange Bowl.

Having led both universities, Shalala has a unique vantage point. She stepped down as Miami president in 2015, while continuing to teach there.

“My loyalties are sort of half-split,” Shalala told the Wisconsin State Journal in an interview Thursday.

At first blush, the universities have little in common. Miami is a private university in a Caribbean climate in one of the country’s 10 largest metro areas, best known for having won five national football championships.

The university considers itself “a gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean,” according to its communications office, and its schools include the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the only research institute of its kind in the continental U.S.

Notable alumni include actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, singer and songwriter Gloria Estefan, former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus of Kenosha, Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Michael Irvin, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Wisconsin, located in a mid-sized city in the Upper Midwest, is a national research powerhouse that regularly places in the top 10 nationally for research rankings by the National Science Foundation.

It has been known as a center for academic freedom and, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, for student activism.

Alumni include Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, author Joyce Carol Oates, Sierra Club founder John Muir, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, astronaut Jim Lovell and John Bardeen, the only two-time recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Wisconsin has enjoyed recent success in athletics, including men’s basketball, where its teams made the Final Four in 2014 and 2015.

A fresh start

But Wisconsin also saw its football fortunes improve, after several decades of limited success, in the 1990s — shortly after Shalala arrived in 1988.

About a year into her tenure, Shalala — who at Wisconsin became just the second woman to lead a major research university — made a pivotal decision. She fired athletics director Ade Sponberg and football coach Don Morton, then named Pat Richter, a former All-American Wisconsin tight end, as athletic director.

Richter, in turn, hired Barry Alvarez as football coach. The rest was history for Badgers fans.

In turn, Shalala was credited with improving Miami’s financial and academic picture during her tenure there. The Miami Herald reported earlier this year that Shalala “transformed” Miami “from a beer-and-party school to one with a global reach, raising billions of dollars in the process.”

What Shalala said she’s most proud of, during her time at UW-Madison, was improving undergraduate education and “the undergraduate experience” on a campus where she said graduate programs already were top-notch.

Asked the tough question — which team will she root for next week — Shalala didn’t miss a beat.

“Both schools,” she said. “I can’t lose.”

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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