Before the NCAA West Regional, sportswriters called Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan the best college basketball coach to have yet to get to the Final Four.
If you believed ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly, before Saturday’s 64–63 overtime win over Arizona, “Final Fours are to Bo Ryan what fruit was to Tantalas. … The coyote never gets the roadrunner, and Bo Ryan never gets the Final Four.”
Which is an ignorant comment (the part about the Final Four, not Wile E. Coyote, Supergenius), as readers of this newspaper and followers of UW–Platteville sports over the years know. Not only did Ryan’s UW–Platteville teams get to five Final Fours, the Pioneers won four of them, two of them completing undefeated seasons, which is nearly impossible to do in basketball.
It’s inevitable that sportswriters for big newspapers now refer to Ryan’s having “toiled for years far removed from the spotlight as coach of Wisconsin-Platteville,” as the Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla put it. Readers are supposed to believe that accomplishments at a level other than Division I are meaningless. Which is also ignorant, because, for starters, the financial aid Division III players get is for being students, not athletes. There is no charter flight to Superior for the game, no palatial facilities, no posh athletic dorm, no nationwide TV, and obviously no National Basketball Association future.
It’s also ironic, as Pioneer fans know, that Ryan’s Badger teams are known for playing at a deliberate offensive pace (which started with Dick Bennett), given that Ryan’s Pioneer teams played much quicker. (Ryan’s first title team, the 1990–91 Pioneers, averaged 97.4 points per game and exceeded 100 points 14 times.) What hasn’t changed between Platteville and Madison is Ryan’s insistence on fundamentals, strong defense, and attention to detail (for instance, making more free throws than your opponent attempts). That’s something to be proud of, not an amusing anachronism.
So is players’ going to classes. Kiszla quoted Ryan on who he wants to recruit: “Good students, hard workers, good listeners. People that are pretty focused on what’s going to happen in the next 60 years as well as they are focused on what’s going to happen in the next couple years, because that’s what we’re preparing people for as coaches. We’re preparing them for when they’re in their 30s, 40s, 60s, 70s and 80s.”
Three people deserve to be remembered this week. One is George Chryst, the late UW–Platteville athletic director who hired UW assistant Ryan to coach the Pioneers. Another, as many sportswriters noted, was Ryan’s father, Butch, whose 90th birthday would have been Saturday. The story goes that Butch slipped into a photo taken after the Pioneers won Bo’s fourth national championship a sign that said “Bring On Duke.” The third was Dick Brockman, long-time owner of The Journal, who took particular pride in following and covering the Pioneers on their way to collecting big gold trophies, even though that required trips to Springfield, Ohio, Buffalo and Salem, Va., the current D3 Final Four site.
One fun thing about UW’s success this season — and before that, since Ryan has a perfect record of getting Badger teams into the NCAA tournament — is how many of his former players are still in this area. Mike Uppena is the boys basketball coach at Potosi. (Where, ironically, he coaches against his father, Dennis, and alma mater, Cassville.) Andy Banasik coaches at Prairie du Chien. Merrill Brunson teaches and coaches at Platteville Middle School.
One of Ryan’s first noted players, Steve Showalter, is the boys basketball coach at Germantown, which for now seems to have a permanent berth in the WIAA state boys basketball tournament. Another player, Saul Phillips, coaches at North Dakota State, which pulled off an epic upset over Oklahoma in the tournament. And the last national champion’s manager, Robert Callahan, is now the editor of the Fennimore Times, whose work occasionally appears in The Journal.
I don’t know if Chryst had any idea how much success Ryan would have when he hired Ryan, who was an assistant under Bill Cofield and Steve Yoder, two UW coaches in the midst of the Badgers’ 47-year drought in NCAA tournament appearances. Ryan coached at UWP 15 years, then left for two seasons at UW–Milwaukee. Ryan got hired at Wisconsin after Dick Bennett’s midseason retirement, interim coach Brad Soderberg’s firing after an NCAA one-and-done, and a brief flirtation with former Marquette and Utah coach Rick Majerus. At 53, Ryan wasn’t the latest whiz-kid young coach, only a coach who left UWP with the best winning percentage of any D3 coach in the history of Division III.
If Wisconsin is fortunate enough to beat Kentucky Saturday and then Connecticut or Florida to win the national championship, sportswriters will call it Ryan’s first national title. We know that it will be Ryan’s fifth national title. As for how likely winning is: Consider that the Final Four is being played at Cowboys Stadium (or whatever it’s called now) near Dallas. The last time a Wisconsin-based team played in a championship event at that stadium was Super Bowl XLV. That went pretty well for the Wisconsin-based team, as the guy who visited the Badger locker room after both Anaheim games can attest.