A humble, 'elusive' billionaire: Northwestern donor Pat Ryan does it his way

Kickoff approached on a Saturday at Ryan Field. A purple mob stood in wait for the two elevators.

Time was precious, so a stairwell beckoned for an ascent to the press box. Five floors up, a familiar face came into view.

Pat Ryan? And Shirley?

The billionaire whose name adorns the building refused to strong-arm his way to the front of the lift line. Or miss a play. So he and his wife climbed the 167 stairs to the seventh-floor Stadium Club.

"No surprise," says Rob Ryan, the middle of Pat and Shirley's three sons. "He loves the exercise and is really proud that at 80 he can still climb to near the top of the stadium."

Shirley laughs upon hearing that, offering a similar response to why they would walk: "Good cardio."

It goes deeper, of course.

One of the things Shirley says attracted her to Pat more than 50 years ago was that he did not have a "big head."

He still doesn't, despite becoming a giant in the insurance industry as Aon's founder, a minority owner (reportedly 20 percent) of the Bears, Chicago's point person for the 2016 Olympic bid, a wide-ranging philanthropist (Art Institute of Chicago, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Lyric Opera of Chicago) and the man chiefly responsible for the transformation of Northwestern athletics.

"The single most important reason that Northwestern football is where it is today is Pat Ryan," says Gary Barnett, who led the Purple to Pasadena in 1995. "I mean, hands down. Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald) and I aren't even close. His commitment to football has been astonishing."

When Ryan joined Northwestern's board of trustees in 1978, NU football had dumpy facilities, underpaid coaches and a tolerance for losing. Alumni and faculty debated waving the white flag as the Wildcats won three of 66 games from 1976 to '81. A New York Times story on Jan.10, 1982, led with this: "The Ivy League is considering an expansion from its traditional eight schools to a 10-team league, with Army, Northwestern and Navy the most likely candidates for membership."

Northwestern, with two 10-win seasons since 2012, is now among the nation's most stable programs. Fitzgerald turned down Michigan in 2011 after Ryan assured him the school would aim to build a gleaming, A-through-Z lakefront facility that would boost practices, training, nutrition and tutoring for numerous NU teams. And, of course, recruiting for football.

The Ryan Fieldhouse is set to open by next summer.

"We'll have all the things we need to take the next step in the Big Ten," says Fitzgerald, who is signed through 2026.

Meanwhile, Welsh-Ryan Arena, named for Shirley's and Pat's parents, is undergoing a $110 million transformation from an oversized high school gym to a dazzling facility with top-notch amenities.

"There's no one who loves Northwestern," men's basketball coach Chris Collins says, "more than Mr. Ryan."

Collins is signed through 2025, and his four-man recruiting class for 2018 is No.8 in the nation in 247Sports.com's composite ranking.

During a recent luncheon with supporters, NU athletic director Jim Phillips roared: "If you don't feel the momentum of what we're doing, I need to have a talk with you."

Ryan is to Northwestern what T. Boone Pickens is to Oklahoma State and Phil Knight is to Oregon — only with a lower profile. Ryan rarely grants interviews.

NU President Morton Schapiro puts it like this: "The only problem I ever have with the Ryans is that I always want to honor them, and their natural inclination is to say no. They don't want the party. I had to beg them to put their name on the Pat and Shirley Ryan Center for the Musical Arts."

Knight wears a headset during Oregon football games, getting a preview of plays. Pickens has a parking spot — the only spot — next to the stadium's main entrance at Oklahoma State. Ryan doesn't like a fuss. He's as happy with a burger and a brew as with steak and wine.

"Obviously he's rich. But if you meet him, you probably wouldn't know it," says Jerry Brown, NU's assistant head football coach and defensive backs coach since 1993. "He's such a down-to-earth guy. One time we were in his box (at the United Center) and he's working the room. Seems like people would be working him, not the other way around."

Ryan watches his alma mater play football in normal outdoor seats, with a two-deep roster on his lap. In reference to his part-ownership of the Bears, he draws a contrast: "Northwestern athletics owns me."

Ryan has an open invitation to address the football team but has done so only one time.

"I would not know what he looks like," senior safety Godwin Igwebuike says. "How old is he? And he's walking up the stairs? No way. That is intriguing. I want to learn more about this man, this elusive man."

'A visionary request'

It's an hour before the Wildcats' season opener against Nevada, and Ryan is at a luncheon discussing the lakefront project with John D'Angelo, the school's vice president for facilities.

"When's a good time to visit?" Ryan asks.

"Any time you want," D'Angelo replies.

Ryan's youngest son, Corbett, enters the room. Corbett has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Brother Rob describes him as the "sweetest, smartest, most driven guy." Shirley gushes that he graduated magna cum laude from Notre Dame in 2005.

Sensitive to the spotlight put on him by a reporter, Pat looks to Corbett and says: "Here's the real guy."

Corbett volunteers with the NU women's basketball program, watching film and traveling to nearly every road game. Coach Joe McKeown calls him "a warrior" and "the most determined person."

Come Nov.3, 2018, when the Irish will visit Ryan Field, Corbett might be torn.

"You want to know the truth?" Corbett says. "I like both schools."

Notre Dame can be a sensitive topic for Northwestern alumni of a certain age. Ara Parseghian left Evanston for South Bend and won two national titles. Notre Dame officials met with Barnett before hiring Bob Davie after the 1996 season and expressed interest in Fitzgerald after dumping Charlie Weis in 2009. Fitzgerald attended Parseghian's funeral in South Bend, a gesture that actually has some believing he will one day succeed Brian Kelly.

During the first quarter of the Nevada game, Ryan is asked to name his favorite all-time NU players. He chooses two from the Parseghian era — halfbacks Paul Flatley and Ron Burton — and three defenders from the 1995 team.

"Matt Rice, Casey Dailey," he says, "and Fitz. Remember the Michigan game? He stuffed (Tim) Biakabutuka twice on the goal line."

That '95 season, especially the weeks leading to the Rose Bowl, was euphoria for every NU devotee but one.

"I didn't get to enjoy it as much," Ryan says, "because that's when Gary was flirting with UCLA. Or UCLA was pounding him. I knew Gary hadn't made up his mind, and there were people who believed he was gone. Such a major point in history — OK, you get the success but you can't keep the coach?

"Gary was so underpaid, I never resented that he went out and shopped. We did not understand the market. To his credit, he stayed."

Why did Barnett stay? It's a long story. Ultimately he credits Ryan and trustee chair Howard Treinens for extending a deal worth $500,000 a year, still less than UCLA offered.

"They'd never kept a coach," Barnett says. "They'd only fired coaches. So they made it extremely difficult. Now they know. That's why they reacted quickly when Michigan came after Pat."

Parseghian left. Barnett, tired of sparring with NU administrators, bolted for Colorado in 1998. Would Fitzgerald flee?

After firing Rich Rodriguez in January2011, then-Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon ventured to the Chicago area to try to meet with Fitzgerald, offering $3 million a year and the marvel that is the Big House. Fitzgerald was making $1.1 million and Northwestern had the Big Ten's worst football facilities, as rated by ESPN.com.

Ryan, Schapiro and Phillips were determined to squash that meeting. And they did.

Face to face with the NU triumvirate for 90 minutes, Fitzgerald pitched a lakefront facility that would "integrate" the football team with the student body, creating a first-rate, on-campus training facility rather than the mediocre one a mile away.

"It was not an unreasonable request at all," Ryan says. "In fact it was a visionary request. But nobody knew if we could do it. There were regulatory issues, and the Army Corps of Engineers (would be involved). The financial issues, we felt we could do."

Meaning Ryan, who already had his name on NU's football stadium and basketball arena, would take the lead in a project that would cost $270 million.

Beyond the goal of retaining NU's top coaches, Ryan says: "What drives me is that our student-athletes are not disadvantaged by any lack of support. There's no holding our heads in shame for what our facilities are."

The new Welsh-Ryan Arena, he pledges, will be "user-friendly" — chair backs replacing bleachers, top-notch food options, new restrooms, air conditioning to be used especially during high school graduations and three elevators to help older fans and physically impaired ones such as Corbett.

(Shirley Ryan co-founded Pathways.org, an online resource for parents and pediatric clinic for kids, and was appointed by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to the National Council on Disability. "She is a tireless advocate in all these areas," son Rob says.)

By announcing the Welsh-Ryan Arena project months before Collins led the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament, Northwestern had an easy time locking him in with an extension.

"You look like a front-runner if you do it after the season," Ryan says. "Think of all the torture we would have gone through with people speculating, 'Chris is gonna go … no facilities, no support.'"

The Ryans have donated more than $200 million to Northwestern, including a reported $8 million to $10 million for a mid-1990s renovation of Dyche Stadium, which was subsequently renamed Ryan Field in 1997. The university handled the name change sloppily, receiving criticism from the family of William Dyche, NU's business manager from 1903 to '34.

That minor controversy faded quickly. Today, Schapiro gushes about the Ryans: "They support undergrads and graduate students. They support research and athletics, science and humanities. The music building is Ryan. Athletic facilities are Ryan. Undergraduate financial aid is Ryan. Graduate fellowships are Ryan. For everything they've done for athletics, they've done more for academics."

And they're not done. The 91-year-old Ryan Field is due for some work beyond recent enhancements to the food court, west parking lot and video board.

"There'll have to be some upgrades," Ryan says from his seat in section 229. "Amenities are the greatest need."

'I always wanted to earn my way'

While giving a tour of his office on the 46th floor at Prudential Plaza overlooking Millennium Park and Monroe Harbor, Ryan says: "What am I doing working? I should be sailing."

Ryan loves boating on Lake Geneva and being outside in general. As a teen in the 1950s, the Milwaukee native helped build overpasses along Interstate 94, shoveling concrete. Those summer days in the sun contributed to his need for surgery to remove a mole, which left his nose bandaged in late August.

Still ...

"It was one of the best jobs I ever had," he says. "It paid $3.20 an hour and a lot of overtime because they were always behind schedule. I could make $3,000 in a summer, and Northwestern was $500 a quarter."

The son of a Ford dealer, Ryan also cut lawns and shoveled driveways as a kid, saying: "I always wanted to earn my way."

He actually got his first-year tuition paid by Northwestern. A running back and linebacker, Ryan practiced with the 1955 Wildcats, who went 0-8-1 under Lou Saban. Freshmen were ineligible to play, though Ryan says that wasn't the issue.

"I knew I was a hot recruit when (Saban) looked me in the eye and said: 'Jim, we really want you to come to Northwestern,'" he recalls.

Parseghian took over in 1956, and Ryan made the cut to 45 players in the spring. But the coaches moved him to end, and Ryan believed he had poor blocking skills and "stone hands."

He turned in his jersey. His position coach, Bruce Beatty, told him Parseghian wanted to see him.

"I didn't meet with him," Ryan says, "and I've always regretted that. I did something I've never done in my life. I quit."

That decision likely didn't detract from his Northwestern experience, though. By the time he graduated in 1959 with a business degree, he had a job lined up selling life insurance for Penn Mutual and had met his future wife, Shirley Welsh, at Sheil Chapel.

He was a senior, she was a sophomore and they wouldn't begin dating for another six years.

"I was an unusual coed in that I had no interest in marrying," Shirley says. "I graduated, went to Paris for a year and studied at the Louvre. I came back to Chicago, worked four years in the city. Pat and I were both in our cool stage. One day my roommate says: 'I met a really good friend of yours.'"

Told it was Pat Ryan, Shirley remembered thinking: It was six years ago. And we only chatted for 10 minutes.

But this time, it would last.

"What did I admire about Pat?" she asks. "I saw the qualities of a great husband — someone who does the right thing, is proud of his ability but not threatened by somebody else. And someone who is humble."

A small example: Fitzgerald's second son is named Ryan. But Pat Ryan has never asked Fitzgerald or joked with him about being the possible inspiration.

"I wouldn't presume," he says. "It's a pretty common name."

True, but Fitzgerald says Pat Ryan did inspire the name choice.

"Definitely from a standpoint of Ryan Field," Fitzgerald says. "If you ask Ryan, he'll tell you that's what he is named after."

Humility is not optional in the Ryan household. In March, on the eve of the basketball team's first-round NCAA tournament game against Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City, former Wildcats guard Joe Branch spotted Rob Ryan in a sports bar. Rob was decked out in team gear, wearing the same gray windbreaker as the players and coaches.

"How did you get that?" Branch asked him.

"I got lucky," Rob replied.

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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