A few days after Wisconsin’s 68–63 loss to Duke in the NCAA championship game, the school’s athletic director, Barry Alvarez, walked into coach Bo Ryan’s office for what he thought would be a standard, end-of-season wrap-up meeting. Ryan, however, delivered a message that was far from standard: He was strongly considering retiring at the age of 67. “I was surprised,” Alvarez said in a telephone interview. “People have asked me how much longer he’s going to coach, and I always said you’re gonna have to wheel him out of here on a gurney.”
Alvarez could relate to what Ryan was going through. In the spring of 2005, Alvarez announced that he would coach the Badgers’ football team for one more season and then retire. He was only 58, but he had been named the school’s AD the year before, and he didn’t think he could do both jobs. Alvarez came to regret what he had done. “I made my decision too soon,” he said. “I told Bo to take a little time off. It was too close to the [championship] game, and he needed to get his emotions out of it. I didn’t want him to make the mistake that I made.”
Ryan heeded that advice, and Alvarez did not hear from him for a while. Two months later, Ryan called and told Alvarez that he had thought about it some more, and he wanted to press ahead. His hope was to put out a statement announcing that the 2015-16 season would be his last, and that Greg Gard, his assistant for the last 22 years, would succeed him.
Alvarez was not surprised to hear Ryan’s wishes, but he was not willing to adopt his plan. In the first place, Wisconsin is a public school, so it must follow state guidelines by posting the vacancy for at least seven days and then conducting a thorough search. Even if that weren’t the case, however, Alvarez did not want to designate a coach-in-waiting. Although Alvarez did tap his then-defensive coordinator, Bret Bielema, as his successor before the start of the 2005 football season. “At the time I was the athletic director, so every situation is a little bit different,” Alvarez said. “I said to Bo, I can’t just let you name the coach. I want you to be our coach, but if you’re not going to be our coach, I want to hire the best guy possible. If that’s Greg, then it will be Greg. I have a lot of respect for Greg and Bo knows that, but I have to let the process play out.”
Ryan went ahead with his plan anyway, releasing a statement on June 29 that read, in part: “I’ve decided to coach one more season with the hope that my longtime assistant Greg Gard eventually becomes the head coach at Wisconsin.” He stuck resolutely by that position ... for 24 hours. The next day, while speaking with reporters, Ryan pointed out that he still had a five-year contract that automatically rolls over each season, and that Alvarez had made clear he could coach as long as he wanted. “How would you like to work in that kind of environment? That’s pretty good,” Ryan said. He echoed those sentiments during a golf outing in early August. “Who can say one year? Who can say that? I simply cut to the chase by saying I’ll do another year and we’ll see what happens in the next number of months.”
Ryan, of course, had done no such thing. His statement made clear that he was going to coach only one more season, not at least one more season. When I spoke to him last week, he would not concede that he had backtracked on anything. Nor did he sound like he was in a retiring state of mind. “There isn’t any wishy washiness,” Ryan said. “People can interpret it any way they want, but in the state of Wisconsin you have to file papers to retire. There have been no papers filed. I’m going to decide after the season exactly what I’m going to do.”
For his part, Alvarez is not put off by Ryan’s apparent change of heart. “When he said in the statement that he was going to coach one more year, I suspected he was going to coach one more year,” he said. “But I understand the emotions he’s going through. There are some days you feel like it’s time to step down, and there are other days you’re motivated and anxious to coach for longer. I’m sure it’s a roller coaster ride for him as far as making that decision.”
If all Ryan had to do was coach basketball, it’s unlikely he would be pondering the end of his career. However, his ancillary obligations have grown exponentially as he has helped the Badgers reach two consecutive Final Fours. He loves to play golf, but of the few rounds Ryan has played during the off-season, most took place during outings and charity events. He spent most of June running his camps, most of July on the road recruiting, and much of the downtime in between fulfilling speaking engagements. He spent a week hanging at the Jersey Shore with some college buddies, and he recently visited his son and three grandchildren in Ohio. Other than that, he has been on the go, all the time, ever since the loss to Duke.
No wonder he is giving more thought than usual to stepping down. “The off-court things have continued to mount,” Gard said. “It’s a good problem to have because it’s a product of our success, but he’s the most popular public speaker in the state right now. The demand from him from the public has grown tenfold the last two years. He has a hard time saying no.”
Like everybody else, Gard can only guess as to what Ryan’s long-term plans might be. “He’s probably at a crossroads right now, but he’s got a lot left in the tank,” Gard said. “If I had to guess which way the needle was pointing, I’d say he is seriously considering continuing to coach, but I can’t say that for certain. He’s the one who has to make the decision.”
Ryan will need a full tank if he is going to power his Badgers through the coming season. The team lost five of its top seven scorers from last year’s NCAA runner-up, including the consensus national player of the year, Frank Kaminsky. Still, anyone who predicts that those defections will cause the team to miss out on the NCAA tournament for the first time in Ryan’s 17-year tenure haven’t been paying attention. No coach in America does a better job developing unheralded players.
Besides, the proverbial cupboard is far from bare. Nigel Hayes, a 6'8" junior forward, started all 40 games last year, and 6'4" junior point guard Bronson Koenig started 24. Two promising reserves, 6'8" junior forward Vitto Brown and 6'2" junior guard Zak Showalter, will return. Ryan also got amped while praising newcomers like Ethan Happ, a 6'9" freshman forward who redshirted last year; Khalil Iverson, a 6'5" true freshman guard from Ohio; and Andy Van Vilet, a 6'11" import from Belgium. “He’s a lefty who can pick and pop,” Ryan said. “He fell in love with us a couple of years ago when he was watching us play in the NCAA tournament at three in the morning over there.”
If Ryan were itching to quit, the specter of a taxing rebuild might help him scratch it. Instead, it appears to be having the opposite effect. That’s as good a sign as any that he isn’t ready to be wheeled out of Madison just yet. “This is going to be one of the toughest years we’ve ever had, but that’s O.K. I didn’t get into this just to always have great players,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable challenge, and it’s kind of exciting. I love when people get excited around here.”