I was going to write about Christmas this week as I previously have in this space of your favorite weekly newspaper, but as often happens, events intervened.
To be precise, an event you can read on page 1 this week intervened — Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan’s abrupt retirement and replacement by Iowa–Grant’s and UW–Platteville’s own Greg Gard for at least the rest of this season.
(For my previous Christmas thoughts, go to www.swnews4u.com/archives/9723/ and www.swnews4u.com/archives/18658/.)
It may be ironic that Ryan retired during the season, as did his (non-interim) predecessor, Dick Bennett, in 2000. (Though it is more likely that Ryan’s timing was out of respect to Gard and his brothers, Gary and UW–Platteville coach Jeff, during the illness and death of their father, Glen.) Bennett and Ryan are kind of the first fathers of basketball in Wisconsin, given the number of high schools and colleges that run Ryan’s swing offense and have adopted Bennett’s defense-first philosophy.
After two years at UW–Milwaukee, UW hired Ryan after UW’s brief flirtation with the more colorful Rick Majerus, a Milwaukee native and former Marquette coach and Bucks assistant coach. (Like Ryan, Majerus was an experience to interview.) When Ryan announced this summer that this would be his last year and he wanted Gard to replace him, UW athletic director Barry Alvarez said he would not necessarily be hiring Gard. Ryan fixed that, though whether Gard is the UW coach at this time next year obviously depends on the rest of this season. Gard seems fine with that, given that he said last week that he’s never had more than a one-year contract in more than 20 years as Ryan’s assistant.
Ignorant national commentators (but I repeat myself) criticized Ryan for the timing of his retirement. These are the same paid mouths who have criticized Ryan for the playing style of his teams, for his answering the question he wants to answer instead of the question he’s asked, for his crankiness in front of national media, or other made-up reasons that betray a lack of insight into how things really are. To get a better view of Ryan the coach and man, talk to Ryan’s current and former players and assistant coaches and those who were around here in the 1990s, when UW–Platteville fans kept weekends in March open for postseason college basketball.
Ryan’s announcement comes one year after the hiring of Platteville High School graduate Paul Chryst, son of former UW–Platteville athletic director George Chryst (who hired Ryan from UW to UWP), as UW football coach. The amusing story a year ago was how George Chryst would have reacted to Paul’s and Ryan’s both being UW coaches. Ryan was 52 when he got the UW job, and Gard (who I recall as part of the 1988–89 Iowa–Grant state-tournament boys basketball team) is 45, neither of which fits into the “whiz kid” category of attention-getting coach hires.
(Irrelevant online aside: As someone with a similar last name, I’m amused that at least Greg and Jeff, and possibly all the Gards, have the nickname of “Gardo,” given that most nicknames shorten, rather than lengthen, a name. Since somewhere in grade school, I have been known as “Presty,” a nickname that, as with all nicknames, I didn’t choose, but now I hear applied to a new generation of Prestegards. Now, back to action.)
The reason Ryan and Paul Chryst were good hires and Gard is a good hire regardless of its timing is that each knows what it takes to win at UW–Madison, specifically what you can and cannot do. UW has lost out on football and basketball players over the years because those players couldn’t meet UW’s admission standards. Additionally, Ryan and Gard seek to develop complete players — tall players who can shoot outside and guards who can play inside, and of course players who are fundamentally sound on offense and defense — and not every highly touted recruit can do those things outside of their comfort zone. It would be a mistake on the level of hiring Gary Andersen as football coach to hire a coach with no background at a world-class university who then (1) underperforms and/or (2) leaves complaining about the academic standards.
If you are a UW alumnus (and I am), you want teams that do well (as opposed to the 1980s basketball teams that achieved two .500 seasons and zero postseason berths), but you also want student–athletes who don’t cheapen your degree by their bad academic work and represent your alma mater well. Ryan’s teams have represented Wisconsin well, and Gard’s teams will represent Wisconsin well too if he’s given the opportunity past this season.
Those who were fans of Ryan’s UW–Platteville teams probably think differently of him than current UW fans — as Jeff put it Wednesday, we in Southwest Wisconsin “don’t think of him as ‘coach,’ we think of him as Bo, and as a friend.” When I interviewed him three years ago, former Journal owner Dick Brockman recounted among his most fond memories the trips to the east for Final Fours, all but one of which ended with Ryan and his players cutting down the nets after earning one of the four gold trophies now found at Williams Fieldhouse. That would be a good legacy for any coach — Ryan has the best winning percentage in NCAA Division III history — but add his 14 NCAA Division I tournament appearances and the last two seasons, and it makes you wonder why he’s not in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.