It’s very possible that the best college football coach of the past thirty years is someone you’ve never heard of, someone like Larry Kehres of Ohio’s Mount Union College, a Division III program that won nearly 93 percent of its games before Kehres retired a couple of years back. It’s very possible that if Kehres had chosen to move up the ladder, if he wound up at, say, Ohio State, the Buckeyes would be just as successful as they’ve been under Urban Meyer.
Why do I bring this up now? I bring this up because I’m thinking about this year’s Final Four, and I’m thinking about how college basketball is at such an odd juncture, oscillating constantly between fascinating and plodding.
College basketball (and college sports in general) has always been dominated by the personas of its coaches, but here we are at a moment where coaching seems to dominate even more than it ever has before, as evidenced by this year’s Final Four. On one side of the bracket there is a man (Mike Krzyzewski) who is probably the greatest college basketball coach of all time, and another man (Tom Izzo) who is not far behind. And on the other side of a bracket there is man (John Calipari) who, whatever your opinions on his ethos, has already proven himself as one of the great developers of professional talent in the history of the sport.
But mostly I bring this up because I find myself, like many other impartial observers, eminently fascinated by the other coach at this year’s Final Four above all others. I bring this up because Wisconsin has made the Final Four for the second consecutive season, and they’ve done it under the leadership of a curmudgeonly figure named Bo Ryan, who spent 15 seasons at a Division III school in Platteville, Wisconsin, winning four national championships before finally moving up the ladder and eventually winding up as the head coach at Wisconsin. And in the 14 seasons since, Ryan has led his team to the NCAA tournament every single year, including these two straight trips to the Final Four.
There is an inherent goofiness to the Badgers that have already made them easy to like. They are both fascinated by (and dorkily attracted to) the stenographers who transcribe their press conferences; they grow horrible mustaches, they take selfies and their best player (Frank Kaminsky) is a former 3-star recruit who might be the goofiest 7-footer to grace our presence since the heyday of Chuck Nevitt. The Badgers have been loose and free throughout this tournament, and there is something beautiful about that, given the stakes, given that they are one of the two remaining teams capable of cutting through Kentucky’s stranglehold on history. If Kentucky represents the professionalization of college sports, Wisconsin seems to feel like the last tie to actual amateurism, to the quiet lower levels of college sports – the ones that aren’t really involved in the discussion about player compensation because it’s irrelevant in their case.
This, of course, is not an entirely fair comparison. Wisconsin’s other star player, Sam Dekker, was one of the nation’s top recruits; several of Kentucky’s best players chose to come back for another season despite the professional careers looming in their future. Wisconsin was a part of one of the most excruciating college basketball games I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching in its entirety; Kentucky, for all the existential quandaries it raises, is an unselfish and thrilling team to watch. But there is an obvious contrast here, in the way Ryan generally seems to regard recruiting rankings as utterly pointless and Calipari’s success is tied to his ability to dominate the upper echelons of those rankings.
I don’t really know what to expect from college basketball anymore. It is, as Grantland’s Brian Phillips recently wrote, a constant tug-of-war between what it is and what we want it to be; it is trapped in that everlasting internal conflict between amateurism and professionalism, the notion that college sports should exist for sports’ sake and the notion that college sports are popular entertainment like everything else. Already, popular opinion (including mine) has come around on the idea of compensating players in some way, but I had a discussion recently with a guy who played Division III football, who mentioned that he caused permanent damage to his body merely because he enjoyed playing the sport. Those people are still out there, and at some small level, I think Bo Ryan and Wisconsin are representative of them. Which is why I hope Kentucky prevails over the system, and Wisconsin prevails on the court.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb