Bo Ryan’s Path Will Not Be Repeated

Speaking in absolutes can be dangerous. As the old cliche mandates, “Never say never.” On occasion though, “never” applies. In the day and age where coaches are paid by shoe companies as well as the schools that employ them, and the contracts between those schools and their coaches seem to be written in crayon on a crumpled hotel bar napkin, it seems safe to say that Bo Ryan’s path will not be repeated. Never. Ever. So as his final season as head coach approaches, its imperative for any college basketball fan to take a breath and appreciate just how he built his own basketball dynasty.

Bo Ryan’s coaching career got started late. Like, really late. When he took his first head coaching gig at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, he was 37. For comparison, think about how much Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart have already accomplished as coaches … they’re both 38 right now.

Obviously, Bo Ryan has been immensely successful as a basketball coach. Barring an uncharacteristic losing season from the Badgers this year, he will retire with the highest winning percentage of any head coach in Big Ten history. The thing is, though, those wins only go so far in telling the Bo Ryan story.

More than being an old first-year head coach, or more than the winning itself, the thing that makes Bo Ryan’s career so impressive and impossible to replicate is how he has owned the Wisconsin basketball scene for the better part of thirty years. And I mean owned it. If you grew up in Wisconsin and played basketball at any point in the last thirty years, you probably ran a version of Ryan’s “swing” offense at some point; if not, you played against a team that did. Growing up in Cuba City, Wisconsin, a mere ten miles from where Ryan paced the sideline at UW-Platteville, on the court that is now named after him, my basketball teams started running basic versions of the swing around fifth grade. Which is what makes Ryan’s offense so genius, at the most simplistic level, it can be run by a grade-school team; when executed in its most advanced form, it could be featured in the NCAA National Championship.

Further, in another unprecedented move, Bo Ryan rose the coaching ranks without ever leaving the state. The way coaches hop from job to job now, that in itself is a sort of sports miracle. After UW-Platteville, he jumped to Division I UW-Milwaukee, then settled in Madison. It seems crazy, but for his entire thirty-plus-year coaching career, with the exception of his two seasons in Milwaukee, if you wanted to call Ryan in his office, you started with the 608 area code. Again: Ryan owns Wisconsin basketball.

Along the way, he was doubted at every turn by outsiders, yet viewed as a basketball Mozart by those who watched his program(s) closely. His swing offense being his prized composition. Not to overly romanticize it, but if one were to watch the swing properly ran by five guys with no defense, one could mistake it for guys trying to mimic the motion of a bow rhythmically playing a violin (okay, that might have overly romanticized it).

When he started at UW-Platteville, he was a coaching nobody at the helm of a passed-over, forgotten D-III program. He turned it into a powerhouse, winning four D-III National Championships, including two undefeated campaigns.

At Platteville and Milwaukee, Ryan was forced to rely on players overlooked by other schools, and develop them into champions. At Wisconsin, he preferred those type of players. Rarely making any noise as far as recruiting goes, the way Ryan and his staff took players and allowed them to evolve on the court was/is astounding.

Once he landed with the Badgers, his system was criticized as being a mid-major system. It was too slow for the modern game; a system that today’s generation of recruits would not run, or have to patience for. Some of it may have been a fair critique. Regardless, that slow, outdated system has never finished below fourth in the Big Ten, and earned at least a share of the conference title four times. It’s never missed the NCAA Tournament. It’s been to the Sweet Sixteen or further eight times (and counting).

Now, because of his unprecedented ascension of the coaching ranks, the Wisconsin program is left with an interesting decision to make. Ryan’s system is so singular in the college basketball ecosystem that Wisconsin either has to try and pry Tony Bennett away from Virginia (who runs a similar system and is the son of Dick Bennett, who coached at Wisconsin prior to Ryan’s arrival), or hire Bo Ryan’s longtime assistant, Greg Gard. Any other hire would almost assuredly mean an overhaul of the system Wisconsin has in place (and for the record, Tony Bennett ain’t coming).

Much like current Wisconsin Athletic Director and former football coach, Barry Alvarez, Bo Ryan arrived in Madison and took over a Wisconsin program with little to work with, an overshadowed bush in the Big Ten landscape that boasted the mighty programs of Michigan, Ohio St., Michigan St., etc. But because of Alvarez and Ryan, the Wisconsin tree now stands as tall and proud as any in that Big Ten forest. Last season, Ryan led the Badgers to the National Championship game, ultimately losing to Duke in dramatic fashion. While ironic for a man who has done so much winning, that game (along with the defeat of then-undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four) was sweet vindication for Ryan; a reminder to all his critics that his system is timeless. As he inches closer to his last day on the sideline, he leaves the program (and basketball in the entire state of Wisconsin) in such a better place it’s almost unrecognizable to what it was before him. Now though, as Ryan takes his victory lap, Wisconsin must swing into the new era. On behalf of the state of Wisconsin, thank you, Bo Ryan, you owned it.