The Wisconsin State Journal’s Jim Polzin:
When Bo Ryan was hired to lead the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program, Sports Illustrated referred to him as “a coach no one heard of.”
Chris Dufresne of The Los Angeles Times wasn’t a fan of Ryan being hired, either: “What was Wisconsin thinking?” Dufresne wrote. “You don’t fire Brad Soderberg, Dick Bennett’s hand-chosen successor, unless you have Rick Majerus or Ben Braun signed, sealed and delivered. Don’t the Badgers look silly now that Majerus has formally rejected the school’s overtures and Braun has signed a four-year extension at California? It appears Wisconsin will hire fall-back candidate Bo Ryan of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, not exactly a household name. How is Bo Ryan better than Brad Soderberg?”
Earlier this week, Dufresne wrote a column setting up the Final Four, which begins Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. He wrote that the field — UW, Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State — is as “traditional as the Rose Parade.”
Reporters don’t write headlines for their stories, but it’s worth noting the one on Dufresne’s column: “The Final Four will be where elite meet — only blue bloods need apply.”
Indeed, Ryan has changed a lot of people’s opinions since he was hired on March 29, 2001.
He has helped UW win four Big Ten Conference regular-season championships and three conference tournament titles. He’s 172-68 in Big Ten play, the best conference winning percentage (.717) of any Big Ten coach.
The Badgers are 14-for-14 on trips to the NCAA tournament under Ryan, with seven Sweet 16 appearances, three trips to the Elite Eight and now back-to-back Final Four appearances.
By Monday, Ryan could be announced as a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame. By Monday night, he could have a Division I national championship to go along with the four Division III titles he won at UW-Platteville.
The Badgers (35-3), who meet Kentucky (38-0) in the national semifinals for the second consecutive season, set lofty goals when the season began. They wanted to sweep the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and return to the Final Four after last season ended with a heartbreaking loss to the Wildcats in Arlington, Texas.
“They said it and they did it,” Ryan said. “I told them I would go along with them, I would patrol the sidelines, I’m with you. But I don’t ever put that on teams, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do this or you’re not fulfilling anything.’ (It’s), ‘OK, guys, you ready? Let’s go. Roll your sleeves up, let’s get after it.’ They’ve lived up to what they said they were going to do, to this point.”
UW associate head coach Greg Gard has been with Ryan for more than two decades, including stops at Platteville and UW-Milwaukee. Gard is well aware there were doubters — inside the state borders and beyond — back in 2001.
“When Coach got here, we’ve always set goal No. 1 as trying to win the conference championship, and if you can strive for that and you put yourself in good position there, whether you win it or come close or whatever, that usually sets you up for having a chance in March and into April. And then it’s a matter of playing well at the right time, having the right matchup, being healthy, having a good team.” …
Ryan spoke earlier this week about all the people he was grateful to for giving him a chance. His coaching career, which spans more than four decades, has included stops at a junior high school and high school in Pennsylvania; an eight-year stretch as an assistant under Bill Cofield at UW; the dominant era at UW-Platteville, his first head coaching job at the college level; and a two-year run at UW-Milwaukee that paved the way for Ryan to be hired by former UW athletic director Pat Richter.
In the 14 years since, Ryan has won 356 games and silenced many a critic along the way.
“The best way to say thank you to people … is to do your job the best you can,” Ryan said. “When I was an assistant, (my) eyes, ears, and mind were constantly open. Thank goodness, because it helped me later.”
“That,” he said, “and I didn’t like losing.”
As far as the previously preferred candidates: Majerus would have been a fun coach to watch, but he died at 64. (I question how successful he would have been at UW anyway given UW’s academic standards and Madison’s culture.) Soderberg, fired after he replaced Dick Bennett upon Bennett’s midseason retirement, was fired after an awful NCAA tournament loss to Georgia State. He went to Saint Louis and was fired there, replaced by … Majerus. He is now the coach at Division II Lindenwood University in Missouri. Braun, a Wisconsin graduate who played for John Powless, was fired by Cal in 2008, then resigned after six years at Rice, where he was 63-128.
Ryan got, and gets, criticized because his teams play a style of basketball casual fans don’t like to watch. (Of course, winning overrides style complaints. As it is, Ryan’s teams are considerably more enjoyable to watch than teams coached by Bennett, who seemed to want to be the first college basketball coach to win a game 2-0.) Ryan does, as Bennett did, recruit players who don’t seem as athletically gifted as those who choose not to go to UW. (Most recently, Whitefish Bay Dominican’s Diamond Stone, who is going to Maryland, although Stone’s decision may have been based more on not being able to get into UW due to academics.) Ryan also has a public image of being bristly with the media, and the media retaliates by claiming that a coach who won four national championships in the division of the NCAA where no scholarship money is available can’t coach.
Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was fond of this answer to his critics: “Just win, baby.” I doubt Ryan is a Raiders fan, but wouldn’t you like to see the geniuses of the sports keyboard after Ryan cuts down the nets Monday night?