INDIANAPOLIS — It’s not often a modern-day college basketball coach pays a compliment to a man who preceded him by almost a half-century, but Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan had good reason to call 1941 NCAA title winner Harold “Bud” Foster a first-class gentleman Friday.
It’s the type of thing you do when you knock a name from the record book — even a really old record book.
“There are schools that don’t have any (national titles), a lot of schools,” said Ryan, who passed Foster on Friday to become Wisconsin’s winningest coach with a 79-71 Big Ten tournament victory against Indiana. “A guy you definitely want to play for, stuck up for his players and obviously he did a pretty good job because he lasted 25 years in the Big Ten, which is hard to do.”
Ryan wasn’t kidding, especially on a day when two of his conference colleagues — Bruce Weber at Illinois and Doc Sadler at Nebraska — found themselves in the unemployment line. The dismissals only make Ryan’s latest achievement all that more impressive.
No. 14 Wisconsin’s quarterfinal win over No. 15 Indiana gave Ryan his 266th career victory since arriving in Madison in 2001. Ryan hit that mark in 14 fewer seasons than Foster, who coached at the school from 1934-59, and Ryan’s wins are balanced against 99 losses to Foster’s 267.
“He’s incredible,” said senior guard Rob Wilson, who helped Ryan hit the milestone with a career-high 30 points. “He’s done so much for me in my life that it’s great to be a part of such a big moment for him.”
Ryan, 64, is a lock to lead his team to the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time in his 11 seasons, a mark that is more impressive considering Wisconsin went 47 years without NCAA Tournament selection before returning from the basketball mist in 1994. Ryan has turned the Kohl Center into one of the toughest home courts in the country, with the Badgers sporting a 166-15 record there since his arrival.
Ryan is 132-54 in Big Ten play, has coached five players to All-American status and still has a chance to win his sixth Big Ten regular-season or tournament title. Wisconsin will face top-seeded Michigan State Saturday in a 12:40 p.m. CT semifinal game.
“Growing up and watching him win so many games and get to a milestone like this, it’s definitely huge,” sophomore guard Josh Gasser said. “To be a player and be on a court to help him reach that, he’ll say he won’t care about it, that to get another win and keep us rolling is the most important thing to him.”
Gasser was a huge Marquette fan in middle school, but that started to change once he saw Wisconsin win back-to-back Big Ten championships during Ryan’s first two seasons. Gasser was impressed by the Badgers — despite not having the greatest talent — doing little things right on defense, not turning the ball over and playing as a team.
Whether he has been Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, Division I Wisconsin-Milwaukee or the University of Wisconsin, Ryan’s principles haven’t changed over time.
“Bo Ryan was an icon and hero around Wisconsin,” Gasser said. “Everyone loved the way he coaches and how he handled himself off the court. It definitely was a great program that I wanted to follow and grew on me when I was growing up. I like it more and more.”
In more ways than one, Gasser fits the mold of a Wisconsin basketball player, particularly a point guard; he’s tough-minded, blue-collar and has a tremendous love for the game and will to win.
Ryan’s recruiting classes seldom yield McDonald’s All-Americans, but he grabs above-average to very good players every year and teaches them a system that’s unfailingly successful. Players like Gasser (three stars), Jordan Taylor (three stars), Ryan Evans (two stars) and Wilson (no offers) received very little national interest, but almost any coach would take them now.
All came in willing to work and all are contributing in different ways. Against Indiana, Gasser’s three first-half 3-pointers gave his team a jump start. Taylor had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio on an afternoon in which he shot poorly. Evans scored at least 10 points for the 11th straight game. And Wilson, well, all he did was hit a Big Ten Tournament-tying record seven 3-pointers and go 11 for 16 from the field.
It’s the same kind of progression players like Devin Harris, Alando Tucker and Jon Leuer experienced later in their careers and why they all have collected NBA paychecks.
“He’s a great teacher,” Taylor said. “You have to listen to what he is saying and not how he is saying it sometimes. We’ve been really lucky to play for Coach Ryan over the last four years. He wants to win as much as we do. We’re trying to help each other, he’s trying to help us, and we’re trying to help him because he’s one of the greatest coaches around.”
Wisconsin’s patient — sometimes complex — offense relies heavily on the point guard, and Ryan typically has a young guard study the offense for two years under a veteran. When the veteran graduates, the youngster is primed for the opportunity passed along to him. From Harris to Sharif Chambliss to Kammron Taylor to Trevon Hughes, the system works, and Taylor, Gasser and true freshman George Marshall can and do vouch for it.
“He wants the best for his players,” Gasser said. “That’s first and foremost in his mind. He’s all about winning, and he’ll do whatever it takes to win. He’s more than a basketball coach. He wants you to be a great human being in life and have a great career moving. He wants to lead you in the right direction.”
That direction, for the past 11 seasons, has been to the top of the Big Ten and into the NCAA tournament. Now, it’s made him the winningest coach the school has ever seen.