MADISON, Wis. — Deep in the recesses of the Kohl Center, Bo Ryan approached a podium in a good mood. That is to say, as good a mood as you’ll find Ryan during the heart of basketball season.
It was a half-hour after Wisconsin’s 74-51 shellacking of No. 12 Illinois on Saturday afternoon, and Ryan, the Badgers’ 12th-year coach, had every reason to crack a smile as wide as the Wisconsin River. The Badgers had secured their biggest victory of the early season, tying them for first place in the Big Ten.
But the smile on Ryan’s face never materialized. The 65-year-old man who has devoted his entire life to basketball was pleased but not satisfied. Never satisfied.
“That’s probably as good as we’ve played this year,” Ryan said. “What you have to do is know that tomorrow we’re practicing for (what’s) next. And that’s how short-lived a victory like this can be.”
Three days later, Wisconsin collected one of its most monumental regular-season victories in program history, defeating No. 2 Indiana 64-59 inside a boisterous Assembly Hall. It was the highest-ranked opponent Wisconsin had ever beaten on the road, and the win marked the first time the Badgers had defeated any top-five opponent on the road since 1980.
Back in the locker room, Ryan told his players he was proud of them. This time, he instructed them to celebrate the victory … for 24 hours.
Meanwhile, effusive praise of Ryan shuffled through Twitter at a rapid rate — not that Ryan would know because he A) doesn’t have a Twitter account and B) wouldn’t care what others had to say anyway.
Among the highlights:
• “In sports, ‘genius’ usually just means ‘good at every little thing.’ And that is Bo Ryan. What a coach.” — Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated
• “Wisconsin beats Indiana for the 11th straight time. Never doubt Bo Ryan. Badgers controlled from tip to buzzer. Great win.” — Pete Thamel, Sports Illustrated
• “Raise your hand if you had Wisconsin last unbeaten in Big Ten. Didn’t think so. Hats off to Bo Ryan & Co.” — Pat Forde, Yahoo!
• “Should build a statue of BO RYAN on beautiful Badger campus 4 what he has done 4 that hoops program-Who is undefeated in # 1 CONF Big 10 ” — Dick Vitale, ESPN
Since Ryan took over Wisconsin’s program in 2001-02, winning when others doubt the Badgers’ capabilities has become an annual trend. Wisconsin has the best road record of any team in the Big Ten at 64-62 during that span. No other team is above .500 or has more than 57 conference victories. But Ryan didn’t become one of the most successful college basketball coaches by reveling in his accomplishments, even if others now want to heap compliments on him.
“Winning and losing is never talked about,” said Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard, who has spent the past 20 years coaching alongside Ryan at three different schools. “It’s talked about doing things the right way all the time and then the end result will be being successful in whatever contest you’re in. That’s how he takes it continually.”
When Wisconsin’s basketball team reconvenes for practice this week, Ryan will pop in the Indiana game tape and point out his players’ flaws as he always does — they allowed a 3-pointer in transition before halftime, which especially rankled Ryan. The Badgers may be 4-0 and atop the standings in the toughest conference in college basketball, but Ryan won’t treat his team any differently.
There is, after all, another game to be played on Saturday against Iowa.
A history of success
Ryan still possesses the same East Coast toughness he developed as a child growing up in Pennsylvania, where he eventually played point guard in college at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. Not surprisingly, his fiery demeanor and tireless work ethic led to him being named a team captain and the most valuable player his senior year. He still holds the school record for field goals made (18) and attempted (28) in a single game, when he scored 43 points against Susquehanna in 1969.
He began his college coaching career in 1973 at Dominican College of Racine (Wis.) under Bill Cofield. One year later, Ryan moved back to the Philadelphia area as the head coach at Sun Valley High School. He earned Delaware County Coach of the Year honors for leading the school to a second-place finish in the Philadelphia Suburban League. The next year, he guided the high school to its first state tournament appearance.
In 1976, Ryan reunited with Cofield, who had become the head coach at Wisconsin by then. Ryan worked under Cofield and later Steve Yoder until 1984 before taking over at UW-Platteville.
What made Ryan so successful, according to former players, was his combination of determination, honesty, fairness, consistency and loyalty.
“He’s a competitor. He’s ferocious,” said T.J. Van Wie, a two-time All-American at Platteville who played for Ryan from 1991-95. “He expects his players to be like him. He wants you to compete and give it your all. Then after the game, he’ll point out some of the good and point out some of the bad and you get ready for the next game.”
At Platteville, Ryan developed a reputation for squeezing the maximum ability out of his players, and no detail was too small — while there, he once wrote a book entitled, “Passing and Catching: the Lost Art.” He also understood his personnel and inserted a hard-and-fast rule that no player would ever leave his feet on defense.
“We will lead the nation in the least amount of blocked shots,” Ryan would say.
Platteville won 82.2 percent of its games and four national championships during Ryan’s tenure (1991, 1995, 1998, and 1999). And during the 1996-97 season, the Pioneers set the all-time Division III scoring defense record, allowing 47.5 points per game.
“Somebody has always got to be able to stop the opposing team’s best offensive player,” Van Wie said. “Somebody has got to be able to get those rebounds. You don’t always have to be able to score 30 points to play in coach’s system. There’s a spot for a lot of different people. But if you don’t know how to play defense, unless you’re making 65, 70 percent of your shots, you might not get on the floor.”
When Ryan accomplished all he could at the Division III level, he accepted the head coaching position at Division I University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He led the Panthers to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in eight years and took over at Wisconsin in 2001. After 17 years as a college head coach, he had earned his shot to lead at the highest level.
Ryan’s coaching style is one that has led to considerable criticism. The same tactics that went largely unnoticed nationally while he was winning at UW-Platteville suddenly were being broadcast into homes on television sets across the country.
The Badgers operate at a slower pace than most opponents, rank among the nation’s leaders in scoring defense and generally suck the life out of opposing arenas. Over the last 11 years, Wisconsin has ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense eight times and in the top 10 nationally nine times.
Ryan preaches that his team adhere to fundamental man-to-man defensive rules, including hedging and guarding ball screens and proper positioning on help defense. He also isn’t afraid to run his swing offense — a four-out patterned system developed at Platteville in which all positions on the court are interchangeable — until the final seconds on the shot clock. The offense is deliberate and focuses on making several passes before creating a high-percentage shot.
“I don’t know if he wants us to say this, but he’s one of the most overlooked coaches in the country,” Badgers junior forward Zach Bohannon said. “And it’s not just him. I think it’s our entire program. We get so much negative press because of our ugly style of play.”
Two years ago, Wisconsin lost to Penn State, 36-33, in the lowest-scoring game in Big Ten Tournament history, setting off a slew of unflattering comments. But in typical Ryan fashion, the Badgers rebounded to win their first two NCAA Tournament games and reach the Sweet 16.
Ryan’s system has allowed Wisconsin to compete against the top programs in college basketball despite not landing five-star recruits to the program. For that reason, pundits often suggest that no coach has squeezed more positive results out of players of supposed “lesser talent” than Ryan.
Badgers senior forward Mike Bruesewitz said Ryan recruits high-quality players with good character who are willing to work hard and understand their role on the team.
“Sometimes we’re not the most highly touted kids,” Bruesewitz said, “but he sees something in us.”
Players also say Ryan is demanding but fair in how he handles a season and doesn’t allow individuals to slide, regardless of their standing on the team. Clayton Hanson played at Wisconsin for Ryan from 2001-05 and joined the program as a walk-on before eventually earning playing time.
“At Wisconsin, if you’re the 15th guy on the bench, nothing is different,” Hanson said. “Literally nothing, I would say. He didn’t say anything different or teach me anything different. It was kind of across the board. Everyone has the same kind of experience, which I thought was pretty unique.”
While some continue to question Ryan’s on-court methods, there is no denying his ability to win games. Before Ryan’s arrival, Wisconsin had been to seven NCAA Tournaments in program history. The Badgers have never finished worse than fourth place in the Big Ten since Ryan took over and also have qualified for the NCAA Tournament each season despite often starting the season with limited expectations.
This season, for example, Wisconsin lost starting point guard Josh Gasser for the year to an ACL injury on Oct. 27, less than two weeks before the first game. The Badgers opened the season 6-4 in non-conference play while Traevon Jackson and George Marshall struggled to fill in, and the team appeared on the verge of missing the big dance.
Seven games later, Wisconsin’s new rotation has adjusted to its roles as Ryan instructed, and the Badgers haven’t lost since.
“It almost doesn’t matter who’s there,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “It’s a system in place. It’s a mentality that they have. They’re going to compete, and they’re going to play well.”
Gard said players have success because they know what is expected of them each day in practice.
“His core is in place in terms of what he believes in, and he doesn’t detour from that,” Gard said. “He’s not changing. We don’t have nine different defenses. We have one and we’re going to play it very well.
“We have rules associated with it and you play to those. And it helps players gain confidence because they know there’s no gray area. There’s black and white. That’s why I think you see us play so well together as a unit is because he’s very good at putting the pieces together to build a team.”
Ryan also is a talented in-game strategist and motivator, and his ability to push players was evident during Wisconsin’s victory against Indiana on Tuesday night. Hoosiers 7-foot center Cody Zeller, a projected NBA lottery pick, scored 18 points on 8 of 8 field-goal shooting in the first half, primarily against Badgers center Jared Berggren.
During the second half, Zeller made 1 of 7 shots and scored five points, allowing Wisconsin to pull ahead.
“He uses a lot of stuff to negate people’s athletic ability and to take away strong points,” Bruesewitz said of Ryan. “If you’re playing an opponent, put it into perspective of a ping-pong game. If I can’t hit a backhand, you’re going to hit it to my backhand every time if you want to win. That’s how he coaches.”
With the victory against Indiana, Ryan tied John Wooden on the career wins list at 664 to rank 38th in NCAA history. His success hasn’t come with the same pizzazz as coaches at other programs, but Ryan won’t apologize, and neither will his players.
“Most viewers want to see the higher scoring games and guys dunking the ball and blocking shots,” Van Wie said. “I don’t know if you want to call it the old-fashioned way, but the guy has been very, very successful. It might not be pretty, but the end result is he gets a lot of wins.”