Successor Series: Who would take over for Bo Ryan at Wisconsin?
The SI.com Successor Series will examine who might replace some of the biggest head-coaching names in college basketball when they inevitably leave their posts. It is intended as pure speculation -- fodder for discussion in the long hoops offseason. That said: Down the line, we reserve the right to claim we knew it all along.
Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
Record: 704-224 (351-148 Division I, 353-76 Division III)
NCAA titles: None in Division I. Four in Division III (1991, 1995, 1998, 1999)
During this past season's NCAA tournament, Bo Ryan recalled the grueling job interview that landed him at Wisconsin. Then-athletic director Pat Richter called Ryan, who at the time was coaching down the road at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Richter asked Ryan if he was ready. Ryan replied, "Yes." End of interview.
Since then, the Badgers haven't missed the NCAA tournament – going 13-for-13 under Ryan since 2001-02 – and haven't finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten. Last April Wisconsin advanced to the Final Four for the first time under Ryan, 66, and it wouldn't be a shock to see it make a repeat appearance next spring. Ryan's astounding consistency has elevated the program to an elite plane, and that will increase the urgency in replacing him whenever he decides to move on.
It's setting up as an intriguing dynamic for athletic director Barry Alvarez, who inherited Ryan in 2004 and whose next men's basketball hire will be his first. There are big names to pursue. Or like Richter before him, Alvarez could call a relatively unheralded candidate – maybe someone already on the Wisconsin payroll – and hope the guy on the other end is as ready as Ryan was.
If Ryan left tomorrow
Tony Bennett, Virginia head coach. Bennett is a Wisconsin native who played at Wisconsin-Green Bay and then coached as an assistant in Madison from 1999-2003 – both for his father, Dick, and then under Ryan when the latter took over the program in 2001. And he just led Virginia to a 30-win season that included both the ACC regular season and conference tournament titles. It goes against all logic to imagine the 45-year-old Bennett not getting a call. Wisconsin's success under Ryan is due in part to his assistants, but it also might tilt the search toward more experienced candidates with winning track records. The Badgers were machine-like on offense a year ago (ranking fourth in the nation in adjusted efficiency, per kenpom.com), but it's not like the fan base would recoil when it sees Bennett's low-tempo basketball. He just inked a seven-year contract extension with Virginia, but you would have to expect he would be in the mix right now, and he certainly will be later on if his success continues.
Greg Gard, Wisconsin associate head coach. Gard is ready for a head coaching gig somewhere, but as he enters his 21st consecutive season working under Ryan, he might be waiting patiently to receive the baton from him in Madison. Gard has been the associate head coach since 2008 and also serves as recruiting coordinator, which means he's more significant to the Badgers' sustained success than anyone besides Ryan. That success could also work against him, though. Would more Final Four runs convince the higher-ups that the program has become too big to hand to someone who hasn't run a team before?
Tod Kowalczyk, Toledo head coach. Everyone might be a long shot after Bennett and Gard, but Kowalczyk could be an attractive option. He's a De Pere, Wis., native who played at Minnesota-Duluth and has jumpstarted two programs as head coach: First Wisconsin-Green Bay, which went from 10-20 in his debut season of 2002-03 to consecutive 22-win campaigns in '09 and '10, and then Toledo, where the Rockets went from 4-28 in his inaugural campaign of 2010-11 to 27-7 this past season. If Wisconsin is looking for head coaching experience and the shoot-the-moon candidates decline the advances, it's pretty evident the 48-year-old Kowalczyk should be in the mix.
Long shots and long-range plans
Shaka Smart, VCU head coach. Wisconsin has a potential trump card in this one: Smart grew up within the Madison city limits. That said, Marquette came calling this offseason and Smart met with the decision-makers who were seeking Buzz Williams' replacement and still waved off the opportunity to return to his home state. Maybe the Big Ten is big enough to pull at Smart's heartstrings, and one has to imagine Alvarez will at least call. Another factor in computing how likely this is: Smart might have to change Wisconsin's recruiting dramatically to implement his high-pressure “Havoc” defense, or alter his preferred system entirely.
Saul Phillips, Ohio head coach. Phillips, 41, gained a lot of traction after leading North Dakota State to 26 wins and a Round of 64 upset of Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament. Alvarez wasn't afraid to hire a lesser-known candidate to run his football program -- tapping Utah State's Gary Andersen in December 2012 -- and he might do the same for the basketball program whenever Ryan departs. Phillips, though, is no stranger in Madison or to Ryan. He played for Ryan at Wisconsin-Platteville and then served as director of basketball operations under him with the Badgers from 2001-04 before going on to coach at North Dakota State as an assistant. Now he's at Ohio, where he'll have to continue the upward trajectory – but it is the correct trajectory.
Brian Wardle, Wisconsin-Green Bay coach. Wardle is 71-55 at Green Bay and had a 24-win team poised to be an NCAA tournament sleeper last season before injuries derailed the Phoenix's Horizon League tournament run and sent them to the NIT. He might belong in the group above, but big-name candidates like Bennett and entrenched options like Gard would have to fall out of favor before Wardle got a call. And how much would Wisconsin welcome a coach with a heavy Marquette background? Wardle, 34, was a star for the Golden Eagles and coached there as an assistant before going to Green Bay.
Gary Close, Wisconsin assistant coach. Close doesn't go quite as far back with Ryan as Gard does, having joined the Badgers staff in 2003 after stops at Iowa and Stanford, and thus appears to be one position behind him in Madison. At 57, Close certainly is seasoned enough with a strong enough track record as an offensive guru – he is credited with coaching the mechanics that led to the five most prolific three-point shooting seasons in Wisconsin history – to run a team.
Rob Jeter, Wisconsin-Milwaukee head coach. The 45-year-old Jeter has had a mercurial nine seasons with the Panthers. He's posted four seasons of 20-plus wins, including a 21-14 season in 2013-14 and a surprise bid into the NCAA tournament via the Horizon League tournament title. But there have been significant dips, too, like a 9-22 record in his second season and an 8-24 mark just two years ago. And his program also suffered APR penalties, resulting in a postseason ban for 2015. Jeter does have one significant plus: He was Ryan's assistant coach and lead recruiter at Wisconsin from 2001-05. The question is whether the minuses would dim his candidacy.
James Whitford, Ball State head coach. This would be an extremely long-term play, with Whitford having presided over a 5-25 first season on the sideline with a very young Cardinals team in 2013-14. (Ball State had four freshmen playing major roles.) But he's a Madison native and a 1994 Wisconsin graduate, and he served as a manager on the basketball team for three seasons. He has a solid coaching pedigree, too, as a longtime aide to Arizona coach Sean Miller; Whitford was Miller's associate head coach in Tucson before taking over at Ball State. Turning around that program could turn heads at his alma mater, but Whitford has to make that happen first.
Pat Miller, Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach. Would Alvarez attempt to test the lightning-strikes-twice theory? Miller is 291-83 in 13 years as a head coach, and he was named the Division III coach of the year by the NABC this past season after leading Whitewater to the national title. Miller is certainly tough enough: He underwent surgery to relieve pressure on his spine in February -- and returned to the bench two weeks later. It's a long, long shot, and even Ryan had to put in those two years at the Division I level before getting the call from Wisconsin, but Miller is an intriguing candidate.