Wisconsin should heed Bo Ryan's advice in finding his replacement
After 740 wins across 31 seasons, including 357 the last 14 years at Wisconsin, Bo Ryan will do what Bo Ryan wants to do. So on Monday the Badgers coach proclaimed his retirement plans and preferred successor all at once: He will work one more year in Madison, and he hopes longtime assistant Greg Gard takes over after that. This script likely will play out just so, mostly because the 67-year-old Ryan is as wise as he is bold. It’s implausible that he’d expose a valued lieutenant to crushing disappointment by expressing support without knowing that athletic director Barry Alvarez is inclined to follow that precise course of action. Ryan will leave Wisconsin in better shape than he found it, and he’ll entrust its maintenance to a sharp, personable guy who knows the place as well as anyone.
The natural instinct at these moments of transition is to wonder if there is someone or something better, a force that exponentially expands possibilities and hope. Things have been great under Ryan, and there will be some who strain to see if something greater is out there. It’s crucial for Wisconsin to work against that and instead take stock of what it is and what it isn’t. It’s a player development-based program, and back-to-back Final Four runs the past two seasons demonstrated that there is nothing wrong with that.
There’s a line between striving and overreaching. Get tempted too much by the latter, and what’s now a plum job in Madison could turn into a Big Ten afterthought, quickly.
Last year, Ryan’s team posted an adjusted offensive efficiency of 127.9, the best number in kenpom.com rankings that date back to 2002. If the Badgers' offense is not particularly hurried—Wisconsin ranked 346th nationally in tempo last year—it's at least crisp and entertaining and beautiful. That offense was fueled mostly by players no one was kicking down doors to recruit, save perhaps former top 20 forward Sam Dekker. Gard, presumably, would adhere to the same strategic tenets, since he has occupied the same bench as Ryan for more than 20 seasons at three different schools. He is also likely to compel his staff to find the same level of recruit—a pool of players with room to grow, occasionally spiked by a shot of top-shelf talent.
There's no dramatic rethinking necessary. The Wisconsin Way requires some patience and some exacting behind-the-scenes work to draw out production over time, but the Badgers can stay good by doing what they do well.
This is all a long way of addressing the Tony Bennett question, if Monday's two-paragraph press release from Ryan didn’t effectively answer it already. It's hard to imagine a better fit for the Badgers' gig than Gard, who is ready and more than competent. Yes, the charismatic Bennett would be a good fit. He is a Clintonville, Wis., native currently coaching at Virginia, whose teams averaged 26.3 wins per year over the last four seasons, and whose father, Dick, spent six years at the helm of the Badgers.
But hiring Bennett is probably a moot point for any number of reasons, and as a result the Badgers can’t be faulted if they stand on Gard.
In short: Bennett makes nearly $2 million at Virginia and surely would earn a raise if Alvarez picked up a phone to inquire about his services. Would Wisconsin want to fork over $2.5 million or more to a basketball coach when it is comfortable with an option who would cost the school half as much? And while Bennett might begin luring top-tier, one-and-done types to Charlottesville at some stage, Virginia, like Wisconsin, is generally a program that succeeds by developing players over multiple years—which does not suggest his presence and personality would establish a different recruiting dynamic in Madison than the one already in place. Not every three-star recruit is guaranteed to evolve into the next Frank Kaminsky, who left Madison this spring as the national player of the year. But those three-star recruits are at least on campus and therefore have a chance to contribute. This is in contrast to the five-star luminaries pursued by every college basketball leviathan, who would end up somewhere other than the Kohl Center far more often than not.
The Badgers' wild rumpus ride to the national title game in April? It’s foolish to consider that an annual program mandate. Cast it as an attainable goal. But no one should let the effect blur the cause: Wisconsin built a championship-caliber roster over time, not in one recruiting cycle. And it’s difficult to envision any coach altering that long-term bearing.
There was, however, a nod to the whims of 17- and 18-year-olds on Monday: College coaches hit the road on July 8 for the crucial summer evaluation period. For prospects, Ryan’s announcement defuses any questions about his future with Wisconsin basketball and mostly extinguishes their worries about who and what comes next. The program will operate from a position of continuity and certainty this summer, even as its silver-haired, sharp-tongued leader begins the long walk to the end.
Bo Ryan announced a retirement plan and suggested a fairly routine succession. It’s understandable if some see an opening for the Badgers to dream big. But if it’s a return to the Final Four that Wisconsin is after? Best to go back the same way the Badgers got there.