There’s been a changing of the Gard in Madison. (pun intended)
After Wisconsin’s win Tuesday at the Kohl Center, Bo Ryan held his usual press conference. However, very few knew this would be his last. The Badgers had just defeated Texas A&M – Corpus Christi in a typical finals-time game, ugly basketball, but a win nonetheless.
Once at the podium, Bo Ryan, without ever actually saying the words, retired from coaching the men’s basketball team in Madison. In what was essentially a power move by Ryan to ensure his top assistant, Greg Gard was awarded the head coaching position as Ryan wanted, Bo stepped down after the last game of the semester, as was a pre-determined arrangement with Athletic Director Barry Alvarez. Gard will take over effective immediately and will coach the team in their next game, December 23rd in Madison against Wisconsin-Green Bay.
After last season’s magical run to their second consecutive Final Four appearance ended in a loss to Duke in the national championship, Bo Ryan hinted at retirement. However, under the supervision of a former program reviving head coach, Barry Alvarez recommended Ryan wait a bit. To not make a decision in haste immediately following the season ending loss. Despite this break, Ryan was still pretty convinced he would step away from the game, allowing his long time top-assistant the chance to be a head coach. Something he had had several opportunities to do, but had turned down in order to stay loyal to Bo Ryan.
This changed, if only temporarily, at the 15 year reunion of the 1999 D3 National Champion UW-Platteville team. Gard, who was an assistant under Ryan at that level also, began noticing a change in his father’s behavior and his father was soon diagnosed with cancer. During this time, Bo Ryan knew that it wouldn’t be the right course of action to dump the program onto Gard while he was also dealing with family issues.
Due to this, Ryan arranged an agreement with Alvarez that he would step down at the end of the semester, giving Gard plenty of time to cope with his father’s treatment and fairly recently, the loss of his father. This would allow him to have his full attention on the program when it was time for Ryan to step down as coach.
I mentioned that this was a bit of a power move on the part of Ryan earlier. What I meant by that, was Gard can now take over mid-season and have at the very least a bit of an auditioning period before the end of the season. It was thought that had Ryan retired at the end of last season, that a nation-wide coaching search would have been conducted for the Badgers’ job, rightfully so. Without the guarantee that Wisconsin would hire Gard, as Ryan had requested in his written potential retirement document during the offseason, this now leaves Gard as the head coach, if only until the end of the season (similar to how Jim Calhoun set up Kevin Ollie). The major name mentioned in the vacancy talks other than Gard was the University of Virginia’s Tony Bennett, a former assistant under Ryan at Wisconsin and son of Ryan’s predecessor in Madison, Dick Bennett.
This news marks the end of an era for Badger fans, who watched Bo Ryan build the Badgers’ program from a overwhelmingly average team to a perennial Big Ten contender who has now made it to two consecutive Final Fours. The only Power 5 conference coach to offer a skinny 6’11” kid from Illinois, eventual National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and one of the most respected coaches in the nation. Wisconsin made it to the NCAA tournament all 14 seasons under Ryan, with only two of those seasons failing to eclipse 20 wins, both of them ending with 19.
Bo Ryan did things his way, the “Wisconsin” way, at every stop he made. He ran the Swing offense and even wrote a book about it. He ran man-to-man defense, most notably, he won everywhere he went. Maybe most importantly, he’s regarded by many in the media, including ESPN’s Dan Dakich, as one of the best mentors of young men in the profession. Recently, Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser, and Sam Dekker have all written pieces about what Ryan meant to their collegiate careers, and their development into young men.
As a 22-year old Badger fan, I haven’t consciously known anything else but Bo Ryan in Wisconsin basketball and adjusting will take time. Alvarez will likely entertain some bigger names in the offseason, as I mentioned earlier with Bennett from Virginia. It will be interesting to see who else comes calling.
The Badgers, already with three home losses this season, are hopeful to turn things around, as they haven’t finished below 4th in the B1G Ten since Ryan’s arrival in 2001.