Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Sports

'It was time'

At his postgame news conference Tuesday night after Wisconsin's 64-49 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, coach Bo Ryan checked the night's stat sheet. He spoke for a minute about the game. Then Wisconsin's all-time winningest basketball coach announced his immediate retirement.

Ryan's own stat sheet contains mainly highlights. He won more than 75 percent of his games, for 747 victories over more than three decades coaching Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, then Milwaukee, and finally Wisconsin. In 14 full seasons at Wisconsin, his teams reached the NCAA tournament 14 times. The program had made the tournament only seven times previously, yet he got the Badgers to the tournament's second weekend seven times.

Ryan's best record was last season's 36-4, culminating in a hard-fought loss to Duke in the national championship game, but perhaps more impressive is that his worst record, in his first season, was 19-13. He had the highest conference winning percentage in Big Ten history.

But the most astounding stat might be Ryan's home record, at Madison's Kohl Center: 211-22, or .906. Good programs should win more than five in 10 games at home. Winning more than nine in 10 is all but unheard-of. Entering this season, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's home record was .894. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's was .887.

Explaining his decision to retire, Ryan, 67, cited "energy level," saying, "I enjoy doing it, and the thing was, I felt it was time."

The Badgers have struggled this year after two straight seasons when they made the Final Four. Having lost Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker to the first round of the NBA draft, the Badgers are 7-5, with recent home losses to Marquette and Milwaukee.

Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said in a statement Tuesday night that Ryan "led our program to the most successful era in school history." Earlier this year, he was named a Hall of Fame finalist.

Ryan's home record is a telling achievement. For four decades, Ryan has essentially been Wisconsin basketball. Like Johnny Appleseed, Ryan was born in the East — in a blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia — and headed west, planting seeds as he went. He took over tiny Platteville in 1984 and won four national championships there. He helped rebuild Milwaukee. And he catapulted the Badgers from the ho-hum into the national elite.

Many of the state's junior highs and high schools run Ryan's trademark's swing offense, as though already grooming Ryan's players; Showalter is the son of a former successful high school coach in Germantown. Platteville's head coach, Jeff Gard, is a Ryan alum. Milwaukee's head coach, Rob Jeter, is a Ryan alum. And now the interim coach at Wisconsin is Greg Gard, Jeff's brother and a 23-year veteran of Ryan's coaching staffs.

Therein lies the stated reasoning behind the abruptness of Ryan's departure. Last spring, after the Badgers' loss to Duke, Ryan expressed a Hamlet-esque indecision about whether to hang it up, and in the statement he finally released, in late June, he said he planned to retire after this season. He was explicit that he wished for Gard — whom a couple months before he credited for devising the game plan that toppled previously undefeated Kentucky in the national semifinals — to be Wisconsin's next coach.

"It's no secret, and every head coach would like their top assistant to be the coach," Ryan said Tuesday night.

Keeping Gard, who has been associate head coach since before the 2008-09 season, would make sense from a if-it's-not-broke-don't-fix-it standpoint. But it would not be out of character for Wisconsin to look elsewhere. It took two job openings for former athletic director Pat Richter to hire Ryan in 2001, including after a courtship of the coach Rick Majerus.

And Alvarez, himself the winningest coach in a Wisconsin team's history — the football team — has hired three football coaches in his 10 years as athletic director (though one was, yes, his former assistant, Bret Bielema). The first suspect for Ryan's successor outside Gard is Tony Bennett, the coach of No. 8 Virginia and the son of retired coach Dick Bennett, who began the Badgers' resurgence in 1995, a few years later leading them to their first Final Four since 1941.

True to form, Ryan began his farewell news conference not by diving into his announcement but by noting that games around finals can always be difficult and then praising his team, saying, "Our guys found themselves, ended up doing some things. Protected the lead, got to the free throw line."

What, after all, could be more important than attempting 31 free throws?

"I was extremely proud of them," Ryan said. New York Times

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