Ryan’s Reign: How the UW head coach is leaving a legacy

Former players, colleagues and family weigh in on his career, legacy and how long he'll stay in the game

A chance to play for the 2014 NCAA Championship was riding on a single bucket. It was a basketball shot that goes in nearly seventy percent of the time—one that senior point guard Traevon Jackson successfully made against both Florida and Michigan State to win those games. But that night during the Final Four semi-championship game in Arlington, Texas, it wasn’t meant to be.

As the buzzer sounded and the ball hit the backboard, bouncing off the rim, Bo Ryan says he thought of two things: “Get to my kids to make sure they are OK, and get them off the floor in a sportsmanship-like way.”

Jackson had sunk to his knees mid-court when Ryan approached him. “You got a look,” he told him. “You got a shot. That’s all we could ask.”

As he enters his thirty-first year as a head basketball coach and as one of only five active Division I coaches with more than seven hundred career wins (trailing only basketball greats John Wooden, Roy Williams, Jerry Tarkanian, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski in percentage of wins), Ryan is uncomfortable talking about one shot from last season. In fact, his arms are tightly folded for this part of the interview. When practice begins on October 3 for his fourteenth season at Wisconsin, Coach Bo Ryan will be thinking about one thing and one thing only—starting over.

Following the process
There is a certain cadence to the Wisconsin basketball team office no matter what time of the year you visit. The routine is predictable. September means players head for the “hill”—that would be the Elver Park hill for the uninitiated—for conditioning, training and teambuilding. October’s practices lead to games running from early November through March, and once the season ends, recruiting trips heat up in April. May brings preparation for summer basketball camps and July means more recruiting trips for the coaches.

Associate head coach Greg Gard, who has been with Ryan for twenty-one years, is widely credited with managing many of the behind-the-scenes logistics, such as scheduling the nonconference games, recruiting and scouting reports. But Gard quickly credits Ryan for consistency.

“He doesn’t coach to the scoreboard and he never abandons his process,” says Gard. “In a way, he coaches life through a game. How do you handle adversity and success to reach your goals?”

The process starts with recruiting the right type of student athletes who can succeed on and off the court. Ryan says the number one thing he reviews with prospective players is how tough the university can be.

“I am honest with them about the expectations of UW–Madison,” he says. “This is not an easy school, and they have to work hard on and off the court. It takes a great deal of effort to go to UW–Madison, and they need to know that coming in.”

Freddie Owens, who played for Wisconsin from 2001 to 2004, says the process includes Ryan thinking outside the box all season long about how to improve players.

“He always is coming up with ways that each individual player can be better, and just when you think you’ve reached where he wants you to be, you turn around and there’s another peak, even higher, waiting for you,” says Owens, who coached at the University of Montana and Oregon State and is now at Utah Valley University. “Now I get it. It is a lot like life. What he was trying to show us, even when we were young and sometimes stubborn, is what we needed to succeed in life.”

Relationships matter
Owens says Ryan also is an excellent relationship manager. Every year he hosts a golf outing for former players and coaches.

“His ability to remember the smallest things and connect to people is quirky,” says Owens. “If you mentioned your wife had been ill, the first question out of his mouth the next year is, ‘How is your wife?’ He can recall many details of a conversation and follow up on it.”

But the most important relationship Ryan manages is the chemistry of his team. Last year’s squad developed an especially strong bond and lost just one starter, guard Ben Brust. Staff noticed how close players were as they played cards on the team bus to relax. And, while Bo’s teams have always had a strong rapport, freshman forward Nigel Hayes’s good nature and sense of humor proved to be infectious and entertaining throughout the entire season. Will expectations following their Final Four journey be the elephant in the room awaiting this year’s team?

Not if Coach Ryan has anything to do with that, says Wisconsin all-conference guard and player from 1949 to 1952, Ab Nicholas.

“Wisconsin basketball is now one of the premier programs in the country, and when the season starts over we’ll be rated one of the top five teams in the country,” says Nicholas. “But Bo won’t have any part of it and won’t let his players believe the rankings; he’ll have them work to win.”

In fact, over Ryan’s desk is the word “NEXT” in big letters. “The game we are always thinking about and planning for is our next game. Period,” says Wisconsin’s winningest coach of all time. “And, next year will be no different.”

Nicholas, who sees Ryan regularly, says he sees no evidence of the coach slowing down or retiring.

“The thing about Bo that most people don’t realize is how much he loves the kids,” he says. “He works even harder than they do, providing them with seeds for success and lessons that last for a lifetime.”

First Lady of Wisconsin basketball Kelly Ryan says it’s a special moment when a former player, who perhaps her husband was tough on, calls out of the blue to thank his former coach for everything he taught him. When asked when her husband may walk away from the sport he loves, she says she doesn’t know because she thinks he honestly doesn’t know.

“We just celebrated our fortieth wedding anniversary and for as long as I’ve known Bo, he’s been in basketball. I can’t imagine anything different,” she says.

And when does his loyal assistant Gard predict Bo Ryan will retire? When asked, he quietly looks back and quickly says, “Do you think he’s going anywhere?”

Where Ryan is going is to a new season, a new group of young men and a new set of individual goals for them. As a team, they will work together to win a championship—that’s always the goal.

Mary Carr Lee is the communications manager for Dean Health Plan and a longtime basketball fan.