Bo Ryan never did master the art of subtlety. When he had an opinion, he expressed it. When he developed a position, he stuck to it. When he faced criticism, he insisted he didn’t care. And when he believed something should happen, he did everything he could to make it so.
Last spring, in the wake of Wisconsin’s second consecutive run to the Final Four, Ryan, 67, decided he had had enough. He wanted to retire while he could still flirt with a single-digit handicap. Having decided it was time to walk away, Ryan knew exactly who he wanted to replace him: his assistant and friend for 23 years, Greg Gard.
Two developments, however, scuttled his plan. The first was the declining health of Gard’s father, Glen, who a few months before had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. With Gard devoting so much time and energy in helping his father’s fight, Ryan felt conflicted about whether he was ready to take the reins, especially considering the Badgers were facing a daunting rebuild.
The second development took Ryan off-guard. His athletic director, Barry Alvarez, balked at the idea of naming Gard the head-coach-in-waiting. He agreed Gard should be on the short list of candidates, but Alvarez wanted first to conduct a national search, one that would presumably also include Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who grew up in Wisconsin, played for Wiconsin-Green Bay and whose father, Dick, coached the Badgers for six years.
Perhaps Ryan anticipated Alvarez would go along with his plan because Alvarez executed a similar one when he stepped down as Wisconsin’s football coach in 2005. Alvarez had recently also taken on the title of AD, and he named then-defensive coordinator Bret Bielema the heir going into Alvarez’s final season. Having learned of Alvarez's intentions, Ryan tried to hedge his bets. He put out a statement in June saying that he would coach one more year, and that he hoped Gard would succeed him.
It only took 24 hours for Ryan to start backtracking. He was at a golf outing (naturally) and started jabbering with some reporters, and pretty soon he was reminding them that he hadn’t retired officially, and that he had a rollover five-year contract, and heck, maybe he would just keep right on coaching a few years more. He later insisted this did not contradict what he had said in his statement the day before. That was balderdash, of course, but there it was. When Bo said up was down, then by golly up was down.
Ryan’s congenial stubbornness is what made him an effective coach as well as a likable one. When you spoke with or interviewed Ryan, you always felt he was a little bit annoyed, but that he still enjoyed a healthy give-and-take. He was the last guy to leave a party, not because he was a big drinker, but because he loved to mix it up with the fellas. It was easy to see why his players tried so hard for him. He could bust their balls and still leave ’em laughing.
Ryan’s record at Wisconsin will not soon be matched. During his 14-plus years at the school, the Badgers never missed out on the NCAA tournament. Not once. This from a school that prior to Ryan’s arrival had played in a total of seven NCAA tournaments, and four in the previous 55 years. His teams also never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten. He won with players who were not heavily recruited coming out of high school. That meant many stayed in Madison for four years and got a little bit better each season. It was not a common formula, but then again, Ryan is an uncommon man.
To be sure, each of those streaks was likely to be broken this season. Tuesday night’s win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi only improved the team’s record to 7–5. (Wisconsin lost its previous game at home to in-state rival Marquette; you know Ryan would never have let that be his valedictory.) The Badgers have lost at home this season to Western Illinois and Milwaukee. Their best win, on Dec. 2 at Syracuse, was over a team in free fall. I’m sure it is tempting to get snarky and say Ryan is leaving because he couldn’t handle the losing, but I seriously doubt that was the driving consideration. Ryan’s has never been a conventional thinker. Why would he start now?
No, this decision, and the timing, was about one thing and one thing only: giving Greg Gard the best possible shot at being his replacement. It’s an age-old trick, one that was pulled off by North Carolina’s Dean Smith and UConn’s Jim Calhoun, who retired so close to the start of the season that their respective AD’s were forced to name their top assistants as successors. (In UConn’s case, Kevin Ollie was given an interim tag, but he was made the permanent head coach a few months later.) Gard’s struggle ended sadly in October, when his father passed away at the age of 72. Ryan wanted to wait until the right moment to drop the news on his team and the public. That moment came Tuesday night.
And when Bo Ryan wanted to seize a moment, he seized a moment. Alvarez, now boxed in, had no choice but to name Gard as interim replacement. We all recognize this for what it is—a three-month audition to become the next head basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin. If Alvarez names someone else, he will be disappointing a lot of people, not just in Wisconsin, but around the country—basketball people who respect Gard’s commitment and appreciate his loyalty to his boss and the program. He will also, of course, be disappointing Bo Ryan.
As he wrapped up his moving soliloquy Tuesday night, Ryan apologized to the assembled media, saying he had to leave because there were important people he still needed to talk to.
“I’ll see you down the road,” he said.
That sure didn't sound like goodbye. As Ryan stepped off the stage, literally and figuratively, it was in the same manner in which he coached. He did it His Way, and for His Guy.