Anyone who has ever interviewed former UW–Platteville and UW–Madison men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan knows that if you ask him a question, he’ll answer the question he wants to answer … eventually.
Based on his UW–Platteville Distinguished Lecturer question-and-answer session April 19, Ryan’s answers to questions are like driving from Platteville to Lancaster — more than one way to get there, and several turns along the way.
The audience in Williams Fieldhouse may have set a record for age range, with UW–Platteville and Platteville High School students — and even a few students younger than that — along with UWP basketball fans dating back to the 1990s and earlier. Given that the oldest UWP undergrads were likely grade school students when Ryan won his last national championship in 1999, some may have wondered if the guy in the red tie sitting across the stage from UW–Platteville coach Jeff Gard and the guy in the national championship team photos on the opposite side of the fieldhouse were the same guy.
(As it happens, I was standing near the exit light that supposedly was the only light during one practice after a power failure. Of course practice was held. Then again, as a UW Marching Band alumnus I can say, because it’s true, that we once practiced during a tornado warning. I won’t mention that my first year at UW was Ryan’s last as a UW assistant, when I always thought Ryan was doing the actual coaching since he was the guy squatting on the sideline directing things while other coaches sat and watched, or so it seemed.)
Ryan had stories local fans have heard — the 1983 state champion Platteville football team, including future UW–Madison football coach Paul Chryst, moved Ryan from Madison to Platteville — and one I hadn’t, about how Ryan once attended a basketball camp where one of the camp counselors was a Rutgers basketball player named Jim Valvano. He also had a few jabs at the last team Ryan was able to beat regularly, UW–Eau Claire. (What is the point of a rivalry if you can’t make fun of the rival?)
Ryan had some fun at the expense of Cuba City coach Jerry Petitgoue when Ryan said, “I tried to get the job at Cuba City 47 years ago, but the guy wouldn’t leave.”
Both Ryan and his successor, UW–Madison coach Greg Gard, said essentially the same thing in repeating something I learned the hard way over the years — don’t be in a hurry to leave where you are. (Among other things — something neither Ryan nor Gard pointed out — you might miss meeting your future spouse.) Division III supposedly didn’t translate to Division I, so he had to coach at UW–Milwaukee first. Ryan was thought to be too old when he got to UW–Madison, and yet Ryan has more Badger Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and Final Four appearances than any other UW coach. Greg Gard, of course, had numerous opportunities to leave, but stuck with Ryan.
“You can acquire knowledge, you can acquire skills … but I think the most important thing is relationships,” said Gard. “As I see faces in the crowd, so many memories. … The relationships you hold, the people you get to know … this is a special, special place.”
You read that, and you understand another Gard comment: “People ask: Is Wisconsin my dream job? Obviosly the answer is it’s terrific, but I always felt any job I had was my dream job.”
Ryan was known for developing players. His best UW players were juniors (Sam Dekker, and before him Devin Harris and Alando Tucker) and seniors (Frank Kaminsky). He said that coaching players required “first of all, patience … and I had to keep reminding myself that I was once young too.” He also said he had in his office four letters ideal for dealing with both success and failure: “NEXT.”
The last question Ryan was asked was to name his all-time UW–Platteville starting five. (Spoiler: The list has more than five players.) Ryan started by naming all of the UWP freshmen and transfer students from his first team, 1984–85, because “every one of those young men set the tone of what was coming.” He then added Rob Jeter and T.J. Van Wie, from the 1991 national championship team; Ernie Peavy, from the 1995 national championship team. Sharing spot number five, Ryan asked, “Now how am I going to choose between Ben Hoffman and Merrill Brunson?” So he decided to not choose between, respectively, the only player to play on two undefeated Division III teams, and the 1999 national Division III player of the year.
Ryan also named his sixth man, Shawn Frison, who transferred from UW–Platteville only to ask to return. Ryan agreed, though he said Frison would never start. He didn’t, but he led the Pioneers in minutes played because “Well, I’m not stupid as a coach. He was good, but he needed to be a teammate.”