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Spotlight: Bobbie N. Kelsey, Commissioner of Athletics and Academics, Milwaukee Public School District

By Bobbie Kelsey on December 14, 2020 Print

What do you get when you cross a basketball, books, peach, microphone, palm tree, and snow together?  You get the personal and professional story of a life filled with the rich and vast experiences that shaped my personal and professional career.   

Let me explain.

As the old saying goes, "experience is the best teacher", but experience is not the only teacher.

My life has been, and will continue to be, an extension of not only my professional experiences, but my upbringing as a little Southern girl, growing up in Georgia with an abundance of love, discipline, and support. Being raised by military veterans and career educators I had no choice but to excel as the expectation was always to do your level best. My "village" taught me confidence to speak my truth, demand respect for myself and from others, serve and give without always expecting something in return.

My first teachers, my parents, taught me well. I owe them everything that I am and have become. And if I can pass along just a little bit of what they have given me to those I work with now as the Commissioner of Athletics and Academics for the Milwaukee Public School District in Wisconsin, the Badger state, I will have met my goal.

So, you might be thinking just how did I get to Wisconsin? Well, let me tell you. 

Coming to Milwaukee culminated after coaching basketball for 22 years and playing four exciting, fun filled years at Stanford University for Hall of Fame coach, Tara VanDerveer.  The ability to compete at a world-renowned university like Stanford not only helped me to excel athletically, but to also earn my degree from such a prodigious institution was a huge academic accomplishment. 

During that time, my Stanford Cardinal squad captured the 1992 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship.  One of the perks of winning a championship is a visit with the President of the United States, George HW Bush at the time, at the White House.  Wow, talk about a special, unforgettable moment.  What an understatement. Even more special was the fact that my parents were able to share in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Shooting hoops with the President is a pretty cool thing.

My time at Stanford was not all red roses and sunshine though.  As a two-time co-captain, playing in 105 games - earning 15 starts – these accomplishments were all despite bookending my college career with devastating ACL injuries. While my personal career did not go as planned, the respect from teammates and coaches allowed me to earn the team's Most Inspirational Player in 1992 and 1996, and the Most Improved Player award in 1993.  There is nothing more satisfying than knowing your voice and leadership are valued by those you work hard with every day in practices and games. 

Following those playing days, coaching was my next calling.  After 22 years working in assistant and head coaching roles at places like Boise State, Vanderbilt, Florida, Evansville, Western Carolina, Virginia Tech, and back at my alma mater Stanford, eventually that work helped me land the head coaching job with the Wisconsin Badgers, where I spent five seasons.

My professional goal of becoming a Power 5 head coach was a dream come true.  Coaching the Badgers was hard and although it did not work out the way I envisioned, watching my student-athletes compete athletically while matriculating toward graduation was truly rewarding.  Every decision made during that time was predicated on ensuring each was setting a solid foundation for future success.

The greatest lesson learned during my collegiate coaching career was you have to be able to handle the tough stuff.  In other words, you have to possess "thick skin" to deal with the many sudden challenges that one encounters in a leadership position. Being an effective leader is not about doing everything right or alone, but it does require the correct frame of mind to make quick decisions in sometimes complicated situations. The most successful leaders understand this and do it well.  

Making those difficult decisions that would not only affect me personally, but the lives of others could not have been successfully done without my strong faith in God, strength of character, and the ability to lean on the guidance of trusted mentors who had experienced similar situations.

Upon leaving collegiate coaching, my passion for serving led to my appointment as Vice President of Corporate Wellness Programs with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County in Madison, Wisconsin.  That time working in the non-profit space was a wonderful yet eye-opening experience but after a few months, my coaching “itch” had to be scratched once again.  This next stop would take me to Hollywood where I had the privilege to coach some of the best basketball players in the world while an assistant coach with the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks.  Notable WNBA and former NCAA and Olympic champions like Nneka Ogunmike (Stanford), Candace Parker (Tennessee), and Alana Beard (Duke) allowed me some exceptional experiences to not only coach them, but to do it in iconic arenas like the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden.  Not bad, huh?

My professional career has given me numerous invaluable experiences in meeting great people, traveling the world, and living out my passion for coaching.  Working with athletes of all ages and levels for over 20 years taught me what it means to exercise great patience, love, and the ability to guide them to find the answers to their own questions.

Following my second coaching stint, my thoughts centered around leaving the coaching sidelines, but staying in the game in some capacity. Therefore, my pursuits turned to broadcasting.  Becoming a studio analyst and color commentator for the Big Ten Network was an unexpected, but natural progression in continuing my athletic journey.  Hearing from family and friends watching my game breakdowns on national television was a great sense of pride for not only them, but for all who supported me in my accomplishments.  Those two years were some of the most fun I have ever had outside of coaching.

Fast forward to 2019 when my current position became available as the Commissioner of Athletics and Academics for the Milwaukee Public School District.  In taking on the responsibility of leading 21 high school athletic programs in an organization that directs the education of over 75K children, my athletic background was fertile training ground for meeting the challenges of such a huge role but one I embrace enthusiastically.  

The combination of growing the athletic programs and fully developing my co-curricular Academics programs including forensics, debate and chess will forge a lasting legacy of teaching my student-athletes how they can take advantage of their full potential to excel both athletically and academically. 

My leadership as Commissioner follows seven guiding principles: listening, learning, valuing fiscal responsibility, establishing positive community relations, upholding integrity, emphasizing service, and focusing on excellence.  It is my distinct pleasure to begin this exciting new chapter with the ultimate goals and decisions ALWAYS centering around how to give each MPS student-athlete the most memorable, stimulating and inspiring experience of their high school career with the help motivated administrators, coaches and supporting entities within the Milwaukee community.

The task of fulfilling this is a demanding one as Milwaukee, like other urban metropolitan cities has its stereotypes and struggles as it relates to racial injustice, socioeconomic disparities, and police relations.  My student-athletes deserve to be valued regardless of their station in life. They should be able to see their goals realized and dreams fulfilled.  Why not? The kids are extremely talented but need the support and motivation to keep forging ahead in spite of challenges experience every day in their neighborhoods.  Many of them aspire to become professional athletes or entrepreneurs.  My job is to do all I can to assist them in maximizing their potential to become successful long after they leave high school. 

The culture of MPS Interscholastic Athletics will continue to be one that allows everyone to thrive, not just survive.  And in order to thrive, the foundation has to be set for success with help from the “village” surrounding my student-athletes.  Realistically, not all of them will become professional athletes but all of them can be assured that they are loved and valued.  And if they can look back and say “I really enjoyed my MPS athletic experience” that would be good enough for me.