The Stylistics, the Supremes and Barry White aren’t talking points one might expect from Bo Ryan. It is, after all, a Tuesday in early March and three days away from the Badgers beginning Big Ten Tournament play.
But sitting in the Wisconsin basketball coach’s corner office, decorated with wall-to-wall mementos of his 14 seasons at the helm of the Badgers program, the 67-year-old seems remarkably at ease, reminiscing at this moment about the sounds of the Sixties (“In high school, all of our music – everything – was Motown,” he says). And that’s telling, because after last year’s breakout run to the Final Four, Ryan is back with arguably the most talented team he’s had at Wisconsin; one of the few in the NCAA tournament field with the goods to take down undefeated Kentucky.
Other than the Wildcats, the Badgers are perhaps the pick to win the national championship, which would be Ryan’s first at Wisconsin. He’s just been announced as a finalist for the Naismith award, given to college basketball’s most outstanding coach, and currently stars in a Wisconsin tourism commercial that finds him go-karting and water skiing.
All of which begs the question: How the heck is he so relaxed? Well, for starters, he’s been doing the basketball thing a helluva long time – since around the time “Stop! In the Name of Love” went to Number One.
“We don’t stress around here,” Ryan says. “We prepare the same way for the Big Ten Tournament that we prepare for our conference games, our non-conference games. What I like to do is just stay on the same schedule that we’ve maintained all year.”
That includes drilling literally every aspect of game day, including team meals. Ryan says that at least once before each game, the team practices at the time the game tips off, and eats precisely when it would on game days. In preparation for their Big Ten Tournament opener against Michigan, that meant breakfast at 7 a.m. It served as harsh reminder of the early-morning wake-up call his players would receive on the day of the game. That’s his style, though.
“He’s a little old school with the way he does things,” junior forward Sam Dekker says. “Discipline is huge for him. He approaches each day the same way, every day. If you have a consistent approach like that, things tend to work out for you.”
Over the years, Ryan has perfected this rinse-and-repeat method. His top assistant, Greg Gard, joined his staff in 1993, when Ryan was the head coach at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, and can’t even count how many times he’s heard the same one-liners, which he refers to as “Bo-isms.”
One of Gard’s favorites? “If you can’t pass and catch, you can’t play.”
It worked, earning Ryan four Division III national championships before a two-year stint at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and ultimately, his hiring at Wisconsin in 2001. It also endeared him to former players and coaches alike. Because Ryan has a way of drawing people in. That isn’t innate. He earned it through longevity.
The pinnacle of his career at the Division I level came when Ryan made his first Final Four last year. A three by Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison with 5.7 seconds remaining gave the Wildcats a 74-73 win. Prior to the play, Kentucky coach John Calipari had the opportunity to call a timeout. He elected not to do so.
It was the ultimate show of respect to Ryan. Asked why he decided against the timeout, Calipari said in his postgame press conference “then I get Bo involved.”
Perhaps nearly knocking off Kentucky last postseason offers the confidence Wisconsin needs to finish the job this year. To most any other team, the Wildcats appear to be an albatross. Discussion of that game, though, hasn’t found its way inside the Kohl Center.
“I don’t think I ever have [discussed that game],” Ryan says. “I just always talk about how important each possession is.”
Ryan played nine players in that game. Eight of them are back this season.
Part of the charm of Wisconsin basketball is that players stay. It’s rare amongst national championship contenders. Take Kentucky and Duke, for example. In both cases, their teams are heavily influenced by one-and-done freshmen sensations. That’s not to suggest that Wisconsin is without NBA talent. Senior Frank Kaminsky could have entered the draft last season, but chose to return. Ryan has molded him into a potential lottery pick. Dekker, too, could have left but elected to remain under Ryan’s tutelage.
“He’s very good at relating to people in general,” Gard says. “He finds the right buttons to push with each individual and understands who can handle constructive criticism through his little sarcasm, who needs it a little softer and who needs it full blast.”
Ryan has to be prompted to talk about winning, particularly as it pertains to this year’s national championship. He isn’t foolhardy, though. Winning one would certainly mean something – almost as much as the wall of All-Big Ten players in his office.
“When they walk away from the experience, I just want guys to say ‘I learned a lot about the game. I learned a lot about life through the game,'” he says.
Talent development is Ryan’s hallmark, but his players aren’t given immediate gratification. Ryan always helps a player start, but leaves it up to the individual to finish. The greater meaning of a point is always found through its application.
As the Badgers get ready for their Big Ten Tournament opener on this particular Tuesday, Ryan watches the athletically gifted Dekker throw a pass. It’s the kind that makes Ryan bury his head in his hands – a lazy, arching lob to the top of the key. After the play, Ryan halts practice and grabs the ball. Dekker knows immediately what he did wrong.
“Sometimes you almost feel like, ‘Is he questioning my intelligence?'” Dekker later says. “But he’s not. He’s just trying to hammer it home.”
Ryan demonstrates Dekker’s pass. It is, perhaps, a slight exaggeration of the original version, but the point is made: A lazy pass allows a defender to close quicker. The coach follows up by throwing a pass with so much zip on it, it gives the impression Ryan has more than a few half-court sets left in him.
“How does a guy my age get to last this long?” Ryan asks rhetorically. “Getting guys to believe that’s the way you should play. We don’t have to try to be on the dunk meter to actually look like we know how to play.”
Still, the idea that Ryan needed to stop practice to make such a mundane, blatantly obvious point lingers with Dekker. On the very next play, he delivers exactly the kind of crisp pass Ryan had demonstrated – and earns an assist.