Bo Ryan has been the fire-breathing face of Wisconsin basketball for 14 seasons, pushing the Badgers to never-before-seen heights.
After seven Sweet 16s, four Big Ten titles, two Final Fours and a berth in last year’s national championship game, the hard-charging 67-year-old Ryan has only one more season left in him.
Ryan surprised the college basketball world Monday when he announced that he plans to retire after next season as he looks to pass the torch after molding the Badgers into a national power. And were it not for some cajoling from Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, Ryan said he would have called it a
career in April after the Badgers lost to Duke in the national title game.
“I’ve always been told that is not a decision to be made right after a season is completed,” Ryan said in a statement issued by the school. “Barry thankfully encouraged me to take some time to think about it and I have done that.”
Ryan said it is his hope that longtime Badgers assistant Greg Gard is chosen to succeed him. The associate head coach has been on Ryan’s staff dating to 1993, when the two were at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville.
Whoever gets the job has some awfully big shoes to fill. The silver-haired Ryan has become synonymous with the Badger program, stomping up and down the sideline, barking at referees and pushing Wisconsin to national power status with a brand of basketball that was often much more physical than flashy.
Ryan is 357-125 (.741) as coach of the Badgers and has taken the program to the NCAA Tournament in every one of his seasons on the bench.
The Badgers reached a crest over the last two seasons, topping last year’s Final Four run by beating undefeated Kentucky in the national semifinals this season before losing to Duke. The Badgers have never finished lower than tied for fourth in the conference during his tenure.
Before Ryan took the Wisconsin job, he spent 15 years at Platteville and two seasons at Milwaukee. His career record is 740-228.
“I am looking forward to another year with our program, including our players, my terrific assistant coaches, our office staff and everyone who supports Wisconsin basketball here in Madison, around the state and across the country,” Ryan said.
Ryan took over the program in 2001, one year after Dick Bennett led the team to the Final Four. Bennett retired two games into the 2000-01 season, and Ryan wasn’t the splashiest of hires when he was pulled up from Milwaukee.
But he injected the program with a working-class attitude instilled in him while he grew up in Chester, Pa., and honed as he climbed the coaching ladder
for three decades before Alvarez gave him his big break.
“He is very tough-minded,” Gard said before the Badgers played Kentucky in the 2014 national semifinals. “And I think that whole thing in terms of street
toughness, the understanding that there’s an appreciation for what you have. The willingness to never quit, never give up. He came from a family that had
limited resources financially, so you have an appreciation for what it takes … what hard work really is.”
The approach fit perfectly in the rugged Big Ten, where basketball games often turn to wrestling matches in the paint. Ryan rarely competed against the likes of Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina for the highest-profile recruits, those who would often be on campus for a year or two before bolting to the NBA.
Instead, Ryan built his program around the meat-and-potatoes kids who showed up with chips on their shoulders for being overlooked by the glitzier schools.
Kids who would spend four years working and molding themselves into better players and adopting Ryan’s intensity.
Without the top-flight athletes to run teams out of the Kohl Center, Ryan’s famed swing offense was built on bleeding the shot clock down to the last few seconds, slowing the game down and reducing the number of possessions to balance the scales. The philosophy often kept scores painfully low, and the
Badgers are one of the teams most often cited when observers bemoan the lack of offense in the modern college game.
But over the last two years, the Badgers played with an unmatched offensive efficiency that helped push them to those Final Fours. Frank Kaminsky, who was named national player of the year for 2014-15, and Sam Dekker were both drafted in the first round last week, and the team that took down mighty Kentucky
was a model for ball movement and team play.
“I’ve never seen a bunch of guys — I’ve coached a long time — and that’s probably as far as guys (have come) together,” Ryan said after they lost to Duke. “I mean look at our offensive efficiency, that says a lot about a group of people who are willing to share the ball.”
Maybe that’s why Ryan thought so hard about stepping away. But with players like Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig returning, Ryan will take one last victory lap.
THE BOO RYAN FILE
Wisconsin record (14 seasons): 357-125 (.741)
Big Ten regular-season titles: 4
Big Ten tournament titles: 3
NCAA Tournament berths: 14
NCAA Sweet 16s: 7
NCAA Final Fours: 2
NCAA Finals: 1 (lost to Duke)
Career record (31 seasons): 740-228 (.764)
Big Ten Coach of the Year awards: 4
Clair Bee Coach of the Year award: 1