The postgame comments that so many viewed as controversial now suddenly seem all too apropos. “We don’t do a rent-a-player,” Bo Ryan said in his presser shortly after his Wisconsin Badgers had lost this past April’s National Championship to Duke. Some called him jealous. Others disrespectful of his opponents, namely coach Mike Krzyzewski, who won his fifth national championship with three one-and-done players in his starting lineup. The majority, though, just cast Ryan as a sore loser.
But the 67-year-old Wisconsin coach knew something everyone else didn’t. He knew he was contemplating retirement. He knew he was the last of a dying breed of coach. And when Ryan announced on Monday that the 2015-16 season would be his last, it not only marked the conclusion of an era in Wisconsin basketball but also an idealism that may end in conjunction with Ryan’s career. His statement aimed to stop that. That’s not an admonishment of using the one-and-done player. The NBA’s draft eligibility rules mandate that a player be one year removed from his high school graduation in order to be eligible. While few take the unproven route of playing a year overseas, the rule essentially requires that blue chip prospects play a year in college – a year most don’t want to spend playing basketball for free. Recruiting those players is a proven method. It seems John Calipari gets his Kentucky teams deep into the tournament while essentially recruiting a new team each offseason. But if he didn’t recruit those players, others would. Hard to blame a coach for recruiting players he knows will help his team win. After all, coaches are paid to win games. Idealism isn’t rewarded in the coaching profession.
Yet, Ryan chooses to be among the most idealistic – an endangered species amongst his peers today. When I spent time with him on Wisconsin’s campus just days before the start of the Big Ten Tournament this past March, I wrote that Ryan has a nuanced way of forcing people to draw their own conclusions. Ryan’s “rent-a-player” comment was made in deference to his own ideals. It wasn’t a hotheaded attempt at criticizing his peers. (During our interview, I specifically asked Ryan about the one-and-done college player. He very quickly responded that it is a byproduct of the NBA’s draft eligibility rules. He was not critical of any coach.) Only now, after Ryan has announced his retirement, can we fully understand why he made those comments. Ryan champions the student-athlete; he loves the idea of developing a player and excels at fitting players together within a team concept. His swing offense is among the most team-oriented systems in basketball today. When he leaves the game, let’s hope Ryan leaves those ideals behind. The game would be better off if he didn’t take them with him.
College basketball has gotten to a point where the perception is a coach must recruit one-and-done players. Ryan’s message: My way works too. It’s proven. Ryan has coached nine players signed or drafted by NBA franchises. None of them played fewer than three seasons at Wisconsin. His hallmark is developing talent. Ryan took players who, often, didn’t receive offers from other major college programs. He turned those players into stars. Frank Kaminsky, who was selected ninth overall in Thursday’s NBA Draft, was lightly recruited by Big Ten schools. As a freshman, he averaged 7.7 minutes and 1.8 points per game. This past season he won college basketball’s Player of the Year Award. That innate ability earned Ryan a loyalty from his players despite his demanding ways.
One would think a coach so focused, driven and successful would take more pride in the trophies he has raised. But instead, Ryan prefers to discuss how often his greatest teams got to the free-throw line. Or how little they fouled their opponents. His proudest moments come when talking about the small things. Those are the things that will write Ryan’s legacy. Throughout his career, he has been patient enough to allow small accomplishments to add up. Maybe that’s an indictment on college basketball today. There’s a demand for immediate return and the one-and-done player provides just that. Patience is scarce.
While recruiting services and sites create wish lists of players programs have to get, Ryan reveres the lesser-known recruits who decided on Wisconsin. “We have good kids,” he said back in March. Then he inched up closer in his chair, raised his brow and smiled: “They’re good students too.”