One year ago when Wisconsin was making its run in the NCAA basketball tournament, the media world outside Wisconsin discovered Badger coach Bo Ryan.
Now that the Badgers appear to be exceeding their 2013–14 season, and Ryan is a finalist for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the New York Times has discovered Ryan too, beginning with a strange headline and some Noo Yawk condescension:
As one approaches this town of 11,000 in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, the largest letter M in the world looms to the north. Made of 400 tons of whitewashed limestone, measuring more than 200 feet in each direction and symbolizing the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s mining tradition, it is peaked on the kind of hill not ordinarily seen in the northern Midwest.
Yet on another nearby hill, numerous Wisconsin-Platteville men’s basketball teams have been molded. During 15 seasons as coach of the Division III Pioneers, Bo Ryan began his seasons by making his teams repeatedly sprint up it for several days. The hill is about 200 yards and bumpy, with an incline of about 30 degrees.
“We were the thing to do in the winter, and our players wore that as a badge,” Ryan said of the popularity of Wisconsin-Platteville basketball.
While college basketball’s brand-name coaches scour the country’s high schools and Amateur Athletic Union circuits in search of the most gifted players, Ryan, now in his fifth decade coaching in the state, takes cornfed Midwesterners (mainly from Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio) and plugs them into his system. Most important, he wins.
Following an unusual career path, Ryan has made four stops at three programs in the same university system the past 39 seasons. After eight years as an assistant at the flagship in Madison, he took over Wisconsin-Platteville’s team and led it to four national titles. Signifying his importance there, the Pioneers now play on Bo Ryan Court.
Ryan then coached two seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a Division I midmajor, and has been the Badgers’ head coach since 2001.
“This is unusual, from what I’m told,” Ryan, 67, said, his modesty on full display.
Ryan’s career seemed to reach its pinnacle last season when the Badgers (30-8) mounted an N.C.A.A. tournament run that was halted only by a last-second 3-pointer by Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison in the national semifinals.
This season holds perhaps even more promise. Having returned most of its best players — including guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson, forward Sam Dekker and the big man Frank Kaminsky, a national player of the year candidate — Wisconsin is 23-2 over all and, at 11-1, the class of the Big Ten conference.
Otto Puls, who has been the Badgers’ official scorekeeper for 51 years, said, “There’s never been the anticipation there’s been this year.”
Before last year’s Final Four run, casual fans perhaps recognized Ryan for little more than his slicked-back white hair, wolflike face and similarly vulpine attitude toward referees. His teams were known for a deliberate offense unafraid to exploit the game’s 35-second shot clock and an annoyingly milquetoast and effective man-to-man defense.
Yet, since Ryan took over the Badgers in 2001, his teams have never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten and have not missed the N.C.A.A. tournament. Ryan has a .735 winning percentage as the Badgers’ coach, including the best career Big Ten winning percentage of coaches with at least five years’ experience, and a .904 winning percentage at Madison’s Kohl Center. …
Ryan’s style can best be described as old school. When Ryan met with his players after he was hired at Wisconsin, he instructed one to remove a baseball cap, according to Pat Richter, the athletic director then. Ryan once published a book called “Passing and Catching the Basketball: A Lost Art.” The post moves he teaches are named for long-retired players like Jack Sikma, Bernard King and Kevin McHale. He keeps an old fruit basket in his office in homage to basketball’s inventor, James Naismith, who hung up peach baskets in a Y.M.C.A. in Springfield, Mass.
He also tells corny jokes, including one involving the basket.
“He had them throwing a soccer ball into the basket,” Ryan said, referring to Naismith, “and when they went in — it rarely went in — they had a ladder near each basket, and they’d go up and take it out.”
Ryan continued: “As the story goes, the women’s physical education teacher had the idea: ‘Why don’t you cut the bottom out?’ ”
Ryan paused for effect and added, “I always say women are credited with the fast break.”
After giving the punch line room to breathe, he said, “It always goes over well with the moms.” …
In 1973, Bill Cofield hired Ryan as an assistant at Dominican College of Racine, in Wisconsin. Ryan also coached the baseball team there because there was money for only one job. School finances led to his dismissal after one season; Ryan said he paid for baseball uniforms with his unemployment check. But in 1976, Ryan returned to the Badger State as an assistant at Wisconsin under Cofield.
Before the 1984 season, George Chryst, then Wisconsin-Platteville’s athletic director (and the father of the new Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst), hired Ryan to take over the Pioneers, who were struggling in the nine-team Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Fifteen years later, Ryan had eight W.I.A.C. titles and four national championships.
In 1999, Ryan took over Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Division I program for two seasons before assuming his current position.
“I think of him as a Wisconsin guy,” said Badgers guard Gasser, who is from Port Washington, outside Milwaukee.
Zach Bohannon, an Iowan who was a captain for Wisconsin last season, said: “He’s got that hard-nosed East Coast feel sometimes, as needed in competition, but he’s very, very down to earth.” …
Ryan spent a quarter-century coaching in the University of Wisconsin system before securing the top job. He and his wife, Kelly, who is from Chicago, found Platteville a nice place to raise their five children. But Ryan’s time in the coaching hinterland was not put to idle use. Rather, he cultivated his adopted state. Where others saw cows, he saw talent.
“There was a basketball camp here, but it wasn’t that many kids,” Ryan said. “Bill Cofield, the head coach, let me run the camps. You know what happens when you start running camps? You get to hire the coaches. I’m hiring a lot of young people. I’m hiring coaches throughout the state.”
He added, “Throughout the state, I could go to pretty much any school, tell you their mascot, and say, ‘Oh yeah, the head coach is Bob such-and-such.’ ”
The camps took off after his move to Platteville, when Ryan brought about 2,000 players a year to the southwest corner of the state.
“It was the biggest thing in Wisconsin, as far as camps you went to,” said Jeff Gard, who played for Ryan at Wisconsin-Platteville and is now the coach there. (Gard’s brother, Greg, is an assistant on Ryan’s staff.)
Foul: Jeff Gard, the current UW–Platteville coach, graduated from UWP, but didn’t play for Ryan or any other Pioneer basketball coach. He was a football player, which puts him in the same camp as former Purdue coach Gene Keady.
Ryan also had a philosophy and a system, which he passed on to players and coaches in his camps. Though he is frequently lauded for recruiting to his strengths, it may be more precise to say that Ryan’s presence in Wisconsin allowed him to shape the kinds of players he would want to recruit.
Much like Dean Smith, Ryan was ahead of his time in analyzing offense and defense on a per-possession basis. This outlook can shape offenses that, to critics, appear plodding, but a slow pace is not a requirement.
“If you value the basketball and you take care of your possessions, you can have a lot of possessions or a few possessions,” Ryan said.
At the camps, players learned Ryan’s swing offense, which relies on minimal dribbling, lots of passing and movement without the ball and requires players to be able to play all five positions, including the low post. High school coaches across the state — many of them alumni of Ryan’s camps, which he still runs — tend to use the swing, in the way that junior varsity runs the same schemes as varsity.
“It was all about his system — unlike traditional camps, where you just go out and play,” Gard said. “Everyone’s taken the nuances of Coach Ryan and put them into his system.”
Even now, Ryan invites coaches from around the state to his practices.
“Every time you come here, you run into people you’re butting heads with,” Jeff Knatz, Waunakee High’s junior varsity coach, said during a Wisconsin practice. Like many of the coaches in attendance, Knatz runs the swing. …
Practice is where Ryan’s philosophy is most completely manifested. One day early this season, warm-ups resembled vintage calisthenics, with the players, hopping in their gigantic sneakers, resembling ducks. Then came a variation on the famous Laker drill, which involved passing up and down the court in continuous figure eights, culminating in layups. Players assumed all the positions — inbounder, distributor, scorer.
“I try to get 7-footers and 5-9 guys to be complete players,” Ryan said. (Kaminsky, who has the moves and shot of a guard but a 7-foot frame, is the ideal of a Ryan player.)
Ryan spoke little during practice. When he saw something he did not like, he whistled with his lips — as loud as an actual whistle — and berated the offenders.
The players ran a quintessential swing play, a double-screen that left a man open to receive the ball at the top of the 3-point line, from which he either shot or tossed the ball to a big man in the low post.
This team may be the perfect incarnation of Bo Ball, which could best be defined by reference to several marble plaques Ryan has in his office, each listing a category in which his team has been statistical champion: points allowed per game, turnovers per game, assist-to-turnover ratio, free-throw percentage.
The Badgers have the fewest turnovers per game in Division I this season and the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio. They have committed the fewest fouls per game. Most important, according to the statistics site KenPom.com, they have the highest adjusted offensive efficiency in Division I.
I have been announcing UW–Platteville basketball this winter, and it’s been a blast. It has forced me to try to expand my description of how the swing offense works (to the extent that I understand it), because UW–Platteville and, it seems to me, nearly every other WIAC team runs the same offense, with the ball swinging (hence the name) from left corner to left wing to top-of-the-silo (or “top of the key,” the traditional term I don’t use anymore because the lane, when viewed from above, looks more like a silo than the initial keyhole design) to right wing to right corner, and back, with a pass to a post player inside or just outside the lane.
Ryan has been nominated (along with, ironically given how last season ended, Kentucky’s John Calipari) to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. What did Ryan think about that?
“It would be a thank you to all the people that I’ve either played for, played with,” he said. “And all the administrators, all the faculty at all the schools, and the players, obviously.”
“Some of the players have texted me or e-mailed me,” he said. “They can’t Facebook me or Tweeter me or whatever that is, because I don’t have it.
“I said thanks for making this possible to any of the players or coaches or people that have responded to that announcement.” …
“But, hey,” he said. “That would put a smile on the face of the 12th man that I had at Brookhaven Junior High School, Sun Valley, Platteville, Milwaukee, Madison, I’d be pretty happy.”