Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan has made a career out of proving the doubters wrong.
And Iowa–Grant alumnus Greg Gard has been with him nearly every step of the way.
Monday night Ryan, and Gard — a coaching tandem who cut their teeth two decades ago in UW–Platteville’s Williams Fieldhouse — nearly captured the greatest prize in their profession.
But Duke and another legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski, spoiled the storybook ending. The Blue Devils outscored the Badgers 12–5 in the final 4:09 after rallying from a nine-point deficit earlier in the half to pull out a 68–63 victory in Monday’s NCAA Division I national championship game in Indianapolis, giving Coach K his fifth national title in nine appearances in the title game.
The Badgers (36–4) made just 2 of 9 shots in the final four minutes, while Duke (35–5) made four of its final six and freshman point guard Tyus Jones made a pair of clutch free throws for his 22nd and 23rd points of the game with 35 seconds left to provide the final margin of victory.
Junior forward Sam Dekker, perhaps Ryan’s most heralded recruit in 14 years at Wisconsin, summed it up best following Monday’s heart-breaking loss. “This one’s tough to swallow,” a teary-eyed Dekker said in the post-game press conference. “It’s tough to be happy right now. I’m blessed to be in this position and be on that court tonight, but this one’s tough. We had it in our hands and we let it slip.”
Monday’s loss is unquestionably the most painful in Ryan’s 31 years as a college basketball coach, one that very will likely stick with the coach for the rest of his days, but by no means does it define him. Just reaching the title game — and back-to-back Final Fours — proved he, and Gard, belonged there with the Coach Ks, Izzos and Caliparis of the world.
Saturday night Ryan’s Badgers pulled off an historic 71–64 upset of top-ranked and previously undefeated Kentucky (38–1) that will be remembered as one of the greatest wins in the history of Wisconsin sports, ending a 74-year drought between NCAA championship game appearances.
Ryan began his career as a high school coach in his native Pennsylvania — so did Gard at nearby Southwestern High School — before turning tiny little UW–Platteville into a Division III national powerhouse together. And yet there were doubters. Well, Platteville is only Division III critics said.
Ryan was forced to travel the road less taken, accepting the head coaching job at UW–Milwaukee — Gard went with him — where in just two short years they turned around a floundering mid-major program that went just 28–81 in the four seasons prior to their arrival.
In 2001, Wisconsin came calling. And Bo and Gard moved again, finally landing a Division I job at the top of the coaching professions. Still Wisconsin was no destination job with no meaningful basketball tradition to speak of.
The doubt persisted. Ryan can’t recruit elite talent, the haters proclaimed. Ryan’s style is too slow, too boring and too white the antagonists whispered.
Even when Bo led UW to back-to-back Big 10 regular season titles in his first two seasons in Madison, a Big 10 tournament title in year three and an Elite Eight appearance in year four doubt remained.
Ryan’s way just won’t work, doubters proclaimed. Sure he can win conference titles, but he will never win the big one, they said.
There are two things I’ve come to learn in nearly two decades of following coach Ryan’s career. There will always be doubters no matter your level of greatness. And two, coach Ryan is indeed one of the greats and Monday’s loss doesn’t do anything to change my opinion.
During his 15 years at UW–Platteville, Ryan’s Pioneer teams posted a 352–76 overall record, an .820 winning percentage. Ryan led UWP to four national championships (1991, 1995, 1998 and 1999) and five Final Four appearances. He also won eight Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships and was the winningest NCAA men’s basketball program of the 1990s (all divisions) with a 266–26 (.908) record.
After three years at Southwestern and a year at Platteville High School, Gard, a 1991 graduate of Iowa–Grant High School, joined Ryan at UW–Platteville in 1993. During Gard’s years on the Pioneer staff, UWP compiled a 161–13 (.925) record and won three NCAA Division III titles, five straight WIAC championships and appeared in six consecutive NCAA tournaments. In his final year at UW–Platteville, Gard served as Ryan’s top assistant in charge of recruiting, camp operations and scouting. He also worked as an advisor in the university’s admissions office.
In 14 years together at Wisconsin, Ryan and Gard have led the Badgers to a 357–125 (.741) record, four regular season Big 10 championships, three Big 10 tournament titles, 14 straight tournament appearances and now back-to-back Final Fours.
Many say Monday night was our chance, and Bo’s last chance to win a D1 title. Most predict Wisconsin will never get that close again. Perhaps, that’s true. Only time will tell. But, I for one, am not counting out Bo Ryan. And neither should you.
Either way this year’s Badgers were something to behold, something to cherish and something to always remember. They made us proud to be a Wisconsin fans. Even in defeat they had us on the edge of our seats all night. They made us feel alive.
And for that, we thank Bo Ryan, Greg Gard and all of the 2015 Badgers. We will never forget it.