MADISON — Bo Ryan has coached his final game for the Wisconsin Badgers.
The legendary coach, who called Platteville home for 15 years, announced his abrupt retirement in a postgame press conference following the Badgers’ 64–49 victory over Texas A&M–Corpus Christi Dec. 15.
Ryan said he was stepping down immediately. Badgers’ associate head coach Greg Gard, a graduate of UW–Platteville and Iowa–Grant High School and Ryan’s assistant coach for the past 23 years, took over as UW’s interim head coach.
Gard’s first game as interim head coach of the Badgers will be against UW–Green Bay at the Kohl Center today at 8 p.m.
Ryan, who was in the midst of his 15th season at UW, had flirted with retirement in the offseason after leading Wisconsin to a second straight Final Four appearance, but later announced he would return for one final season. So the timing of last week’s announcement came as a shock.
Twenty minutes after Tuesday’s game had ended, Ryan entered the Kohl Center media room and began with an opening statement.
He briefly spoke about the night’s victory, his 364th and final at UW, then drifted off to an unwritten, heartfelt monologue about stepping away. He went on to say that now was the time to do something he “has been trying to do for the past six months.”
“It’s so emotional right now,” said Ryan, who turned 68 on Sunday. “And I’m trying to hold this together.”
Ryan elaborated on the rationale of his timing. He confirmed rumors that he did want to retire after last season and explained how Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez advised him to take more time with the decision. He spoke of his preference for his long-time assistant coach Gard to succeed him and insinuated that he would have stepped away in June had it not been for Gard’s father’s diagnosis with a terminal illness. Glen Gard was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a type of brain cancer, in May and died Oct. 30.
Ryan didn’t want to burden his assistant with trying to tend to his family and interview for the Badgers’ head coaching job at the same time. He said he had spoken with Alvarez in the past week and decided the end of the semester was time for him to step down. Ryan said he felt leaving now at the end of the semester gave Gard the best opportunity to prepare the team for their next game eight days after his announcement.
Many speculate that leaving midseason was Ryan’s way of rewarding the loyalty of his top assistant, giving Gard the best possible opportunity to audition for the permanent job with 19 regular-season games remaining this season to state his case.
For roughly 15 minutes, an emotional Ryan meandered through his feelings and thought process on calling it quits midseason, without actually saying the words “I’m retiring” or similar phrases. He thanked the fans and boosters, then, without taking questions, he concluded, “I have some other people I need to go talk with right now. I’ll catch up with you all somewhere down the road.”
And with that, Wisconsin’s Elvis had left the building. The Bo Ryan era at Wisconsin was over. And just as quickly the Gard era began.
Gard and Alvarez took Ryan’s spot in front of the microphones and fielded questions from the media.
“His record speaks for itself,” Alvarez said of Ryan. “He’s a legend.”
“You never know when the opportunity is going to knock,” said Gard, “but you’ve got to be ready for it.”
Gard’s coaching career began during his college days at UW–Platteville. Gard, who grew up on a hog farm near Cobb, was majoring in agriculture business with the intention of one day selling tractors. But after he was cut from the UW–Platteville baseball team during fall practice of his freshman year, he found a competitive outlet coaching basketball.
After three years at Southwestern High School and one year at Platteville High School, Gard joined Ryan’s staff at UW–Platteville in 1993.
“I’d like to thank Coach Ryan for an unbelievable opportunity,” said Gard, whose younger brother Jeff is the men’s head coach at UW–Platteville. “I remember being pulled into his office 23 years ago as a 22-year-old college student and he made it real clear and simple: ‘Greg, that’s enough of that high school stuff. You need to be with me all the time.’
“Twenty-three years later I would have never dreamed that we would have had the ride that we had; Platteville with three national championships, rebuilding a Milwaukee program, and then coming to your own home state institution, the flagship school in your own state and to be able to continue to build this program to where it is, the tradition and the pride that is involved with this program. For the opportunities that he has given me along the way I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
During Gard’s years on the UWP staff, the Pioneers compiled a 161–13 (.925) record, won five straight conference championships, appeared in six consecutive NCAA tournaments, and won three NCAA Division III titles, going 31–0 in 1994–95 and 30–0 in 1997–98. In his final year, 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 15 years together at Wisconsin, Ryan and Gard led the Badgers to a 364–130 (.737) record, four regular-season Big 10 championships, three Big 10 tournament titles, 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances and back-to-back Final Fours.
Gard and Ryan spent two years in between Platteville and Madison rebuilding a UW–Milwaukee program that had gone just 28–81 in the four seasons prior to their arrival. The Panthers went 30–27 in Ryan’s two seasons as coach.
“His record as an assistant coach, I told the team that there are people who have received head coaching jobs who were assistants at places without anywhere near the record that he has,” said Ryan. “Not even close.”
“Congratulations to Coach Ryan for embarking on the next ‘game’ in his life,” said Jeff Gard. “Thank you for everything you have done not only for the sport of basketball, but also for the state of Wisconsin and most importantly Southwest Wisconsin, the city of Platteville and UW–Platteville. Your legacy will never be forgotten.”
“To my brother: congratulations Greg, on a most deserved opportunity,” added Jeff. “The loyalty that you showed to Coach Ryan and the programs you have been associated with all started back home in Cobb, Wis., with mom and dad. Know that we are all proud of you as you go into this next chapter in your career.”
Ryan finished his 32-year coaching career at the college level with an overall record of 747–233, including 364–130 at UW (a school record for wins). In 15 years at UW–Platteville (1984–99) he tallied a 353–76 record, good enough for an .822 winning percentage, the best in the history of NCAA Division III basketball.
Under Ryan’s guidance, the Pioneers won eight conference championships and made nine straight NCAA Division III playoff appearances, winning national titles in 1991, 1995, 1998 and 1999, and finishing third in 1992. In total, the Pioneers were 30–5 in NCAA tournament play.
UW–Platteville was the winningest team in all of college basketball during the 1990s, with a 266–26 record (90.9 percent). Ryan was named national coach of the year four times and WIAC coach of the year on six occasions.
Earlier this year Ryan was selected as UW–Platteville’s Distinguished Lecturer to coincide with the university’s sesquicentennial. His presentation will be held on Bo Ryan Court in Williams Fieldhouse Tuesday, April 19 at 9:30 a.m. The event will be open to the campus community as well as to the public. Classes will be canceled for the presentation.
UW–Platteville now has three alumni coaching men’s basketball at the NCAA Division I level. Rob Jeter is the head coach at UW–Milwaukee, Saul Phillips is leading Ohio University, and now Greg Gard at Wisconsin. Jeter graduated from UW–Platteville in 1991 and Phillips graduated in 1996.
UW–Platteville’s Dan Wackershauser contributed to this story