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The Cobb Corn Roast Festival was winding down. The softball, volleyball and bean bag competitions were over. The Texas hold’em poker games, garden tours and 5K run had raised money for the local library. As locals gathered at the burger and brat stand and beer tent on that sunny August afternoon, excitement was in the air. The proud citizens of Cobb—population 458, in the rolling farmlands of southwestern Wisconsin—gathered to celebrate the town’s most famous son, University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Greg Gard.
Was there really any doubt who would be the grand marshal of this year’s Cobb Corn Roast Parade?
“He never forgets where he came from,” says Gard’s brother Jeff, the youngest of Connie and Glen Gard’s three boys.
Last December, Greg Gard, longtime assistant coach to the legendary Bo Ryan, was thrust into the role of interim head coach at UW when Ryan suddenly announced his retirement.
Ryan’s resignation came amid an aura of uncertainty in the men’s basketball program. Previously, Ryan had announced his intention to retire after the season but later talked publicly that he might change his mind and stay longer. Leading up to Ryan’s retirement, the team was floundering in a way that most Badgers fans hadn’t seen for several seasons. But within weeks, under Gard’s calm and determined leadership, the team steadied itself, notched several key victories and achieved more than most fans could have envisioned. And Gard transitioned from a relatively unknown commodity to the face of Badgers basketball.
Stepping into the 2016-17 season as head coach, Gard carries with him the boyhood lessons he learned in a small Wisconsin town.
Gard, 45, grew up in Cobb embracing his parents’ principles. He was a hard worker and conscientious about everything he did. His summer jobs included working on his grandfather’s farm, raising show pigs to exhibit at the Iowa County Fair, mowing lawns and washing tractors at Ritchie Motors as well as working as a park attendant and ranger at Blackhawk Lake Recreation Area.
“Greg is just a hardworking kid from an outstanding family,” says Cindy Randall, whose late husband Steve was Gard’s high school coach at Iowa-Grant. “He’s like his parents—trustworthy as can be. He knows how to treat people. He never acts as if he doesn’t have time for you or that you’re not important.”
He went on to take night courses at Southwest Tech in Fennimore, a short drive away from Cobb, to become a certified park ranger and then a full-fledged law enforcement officer, working part-time for the Iowa County Sheriff’s Department and the city of Dodgeville Police Department. “I was the rent-a-cop at the high school dances and wedding receptions,” Gard jokes.
He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, where he started as an agriculture business major.
His part-time law enforcement work wasn’t enough to pay for school, and in the fall of 1990, he responded to a help wanted ad in the local Iowa County Shopper. He got the job as the basketball coach for the eighth-grade team at Southwestern Middle School. He then volunteered to help with the Southwestern High School team in the evenings as well. He had started down a path that would lead him to the job as head coach at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
In another twist of fate, Bo Ryan wandered into the office where Gard was waiting to meet with the UW–Platteville baseball coach. Because word spreads quickly in southwestern Wisconsin, Ryan was already aware that Gard had taken the basketball coaching job at Southwestern. Ryan never missed much.
Ryan told Gard to stop by his office where he gave him instructional coaching materials and invited Gard to work at his basketball camps the following summer. That opportunity marked the beginning of their decades-long collaboration.
Gard was undecided about his plans after graduation. “I wasn’t sure what was ahead,” he says. “Will I be selling tractors in Cobb, or working in financial products with my dad? Am I going to sell feed and livestock products at a local mill?”
But his path would be carved out by his passion, inspired by Ryan. “I vividly remember sitting in the stands watching Bo’s teams play at Platteville and saying to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome to be on his staff?’”
Gard knew then what he really wanted was to coach basketball. That wish came true in 1993, when Gard joined Ryan’s staff at UW–Platteville. As was his habit, Gard put his nose to the grindstone, worked hard and conscientiously learned from Ryan. Six years later, Ryan took the head coach position at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and Gard passed up a chance to stay and replace Ryan as head coach at UW–Platteville.
Instead, he went with Ryan to UWM, and two years later when Ryan was named head coach at Wisconsin, Gard moved on with him to Madison.
The fact that Gard stayed alongside Ryan for so long shouldn’t have been a surprise, if family history is any indication. His father Glen worked as a loan officer for the same company—through three name changes—for 40 years. Gard’s mother Connie worked as a secretary at Iowa-Grant High School for 44 years.
During his Madison years, Gard took on additional responsibilities under Ryan and was promoted to associate head coach in spring 2008. He also fielded offers to become head coach at smaller schools. In reviewing the offers, he consulted with his wife Michelle and their family (daughters Mackenzie, now 15, and Peyton, 8, and son Isaac, 13) and considered the mentorship he enjoyed with Ryan. In the end, Gard decided to stay.
When discussing his path, Gard says, “I probably have taken a very atypical approach in terms of how I navigated my career. I didn’t set a goal that I had to be a head coach by age 35 or 40. It was going to be the right place where I felt really comfortable and my family felt comfortable. My ego wasn’t telling me that I had to be a head coach. I never got too wound up about what it said on my door.”
The road to becoming head coach at Wisconsin included help and guidance from a long list of family, friends, teachers and coaches. “But frankly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Bo Ryan,” Gard says.
Along the way, Gard had conversations with others in the business, head coaches like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. One night in Chicago, Izzo and Gard were scouting players at the same high school game. Izzo was seated courtside in a VIP section and Gard, the assistant coach at Wisconsin, was seated in the stands. At halftime, Izzo saw Gard and motioned for him to sit with him.
“He spent the entire second half with his back to the game talking with me, asking me about my plans,” Gard says. “Did I think I could get the Wisconsin job someday? What is the process there? Here’s what I went through at Michigan State. He brought up a lot of good points about what to look out for.”
In 2014, when Wisconsin earned its NCAA Final Four berth with a victory over Arizona, one of the first calls Gard received was from Izzo, congratulating him and the Badgers.
Near the end of his long journey from junior high coach to assistant coach to head coach, Gard and his family experienced a roller-coaster ride of emotions. In April 2015, the Badgers beat previously undefeated Kentucky in the semifinals of the NCAA Final Four Tournament in Indianapolis, a game some describe as the most exciting sports event in UW history. “It was so great to be with my mom and dad, family and friends after that game,” says Gard. “We were up until 3 in the morning celebrating the moment. It was pretty special.”
But then came terrible news for the Gard family. Glen Gard was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer.
“You go from that highest of highs at the Final Four to the most devastating news you could ever have,” Gard says, his voice trailing off, “just six months later … he’s gone.”
Upon hearing the diagnosis, Gard, the eldest of the three Gard boys, put together a plan. “My brother Jeff, because he was in Platteville, would handle transportation, physical and emotional support for Mom. Garry, because of his agricultural background, would help with the farm stuff more frequently than what he had already been doing.”
“And I took on the role of playing Dr. Google at 1, 2 and 3 in the morning,” says Gard. “Anywhere I could Google and find something—whether it was surgery options or chemo, radiation or whatever. I was scrambling for anything. You’re in ‘try to save your dad’ mode.”
“When Glen was in the hospital, Greg visited his dad every day,” Connie Gard says. “And I’d make many phone calls during the night from the hospital, and he’d always be the one I called, and he’d take care of calling or contacting the rest of the family.”
Gard says he and his dad had many conversations in Glen’s final days, most of which were variations on a theme. “He always told me to keep your family close, keep your principles simple and you’ll be fine.”
Glen Gard, 72, passed away on Oct. 30, 2015.
Six weeks later, while Gard was still grieving the loss of his father, his roller coaster took a precipitous climb.
After a late-starting Badgers game at the Kohl Center on Dec. 15, Ryan announced his retirement effective immediately and Gard was named interim head coach.
For Gard, who had spent more than 22 years as an assistant coach for Ryan at UW–Platteville, UWM and UW–Madison, it wasn’t totally unexpected. Ryan had talked with him in recent years about stepping down. “In my mind, it was about when, not if,” Gard says. “He would say to me ‘Greg, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to do this,’ and I would just shrug it off.
“So when it happened, I was not as shocked as most because I knew it was weighing on his mind more and more.”
On Dec. 23, Gard took the Kohl Center court for his first game as interim head coach and was warmly greeted by Badgers fans with a standing ovation.
The cheering didn’t stop the rest of that season. Over the course of the next several weeks, Gard’s team improved dramatically, scoring key victories along the way. The Badgers defeated Michigan State, Maryland, Indiana and Iowa, securing a third-place finish in the conference. They went on to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen before suffering a tough loss to Notre Dame, ending one of the more eventful of seasons in UW basketball history. On March 7, 2016, UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez announced that Gard had been awarded a five-year contract to be the school’s head basketball coach.
“I knew he’d be prepared to be head coach,” says younger brother Garry Gard. “I just didn’t realize he’d be this prepared.”
With a healthy and experienced team, expectations are high this season. Through it all, you can expect Gard to stay calm and continue to be committed to the values and principles that helped him get to where he is today.
Ask those who have known Gard a long time and they’ll tell you he’s got the qualities that will get it done.
“Greg always seemed to learn from those around him,” Ryan says. “He watched closely as we built up the Platteville program and as we rebuilt UWM. And over these past years at Wisconsin, he continued to learn what works and what doesn’t work. He took full advantage of that time.”
Says Greg Quam, who served as an assistant to Ryan at UW–Platteville: “Greg has a great vision of the game. He can break down a game in a way that players can easily understand.”
Garry Crull, Gard’s football coach at Iowa-Grant says of Gard, “He’s a quiet leader who will not be out-worked.”
And his wife Michelle says: “Greg will stay true to being himself until his dying day. That’s just who he is—he’ll always be true to his principles.”
In the high-stakes world of collegiate basketball, Gard will be tested by the daunting demands of the job. The personal and professional challenges Gard met and overcame last season give Badgers fans every reason to believe in the team.
When he walked out of the tunnel that late December night onto the court where he was greeted with a standing ovation, his first game as interim head coach, it was an emotional moment to remember for two reasons.
“First, it was special for me to be in this position after all these years and knowing how so many people helped me along the way … secondly, knowing that my dad wasn’t here to see it,” Gard says.
Clearly, life has changed for the Gard family.
“You try to not get too far ahead of things,” Michelle Gard says of their new life in the spotlight. “You try to do things right and stay true to ourselves, stay true to our own identity.”
For Greg Gard, it’s an identity founded in the experience and joy of growing up in Cobb.
“I always joke that I wish every recruit grew up on a farm or went to military academy,” Gard says. “There’s a work ethic there and an appreciation of the things you have to do—and get no reward for doing it—other than the self-gratification that you helped somebody accomplish the job.
“Until you have to unload a wagon of hay or are at the other end of the elevator, you can’t really explain it,” Gard says. “You can’t really put it into words. But in your own way, whether it’s your kids or our players, you have to help them navigate their way through and help them learn to develop that type of work ethic and an appreciation for the little things and for accomplishing things together—and the satisfaction that comes with a job well done.”
Back at the Cobb Corn Fest on that sunny August day, there was a short presentation prior to the parade. The Cobb Fire Department presented a $500 check to the American Brain Tumor Society on behalf of Glen Gard. And a new street sign in front of the fire department was unveiled—the street that’s now named Gard Way.
Grand marshal Greg Gard was asked to say a few words to the crowd. Gard was clearly in the moment and thoroughly enjoying the hometown camaraderie. In his own humble way, he expressed his appreciation for the warm show of support.
“Some people are saying I put Cobb on the map,” he says. “But the truth is, Cobb put me on the map.”
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