For the University of Minnesota, Bo Ryan has always stealthily represented hope. His retirement offers more.
Wisconsin was not always a sports juggernaut, not until Donna Shalala became president of the university, Pat Richter became athletic director and Barry Alvarez became football coach.
Since then, Wisconsin has become more a subject of envy than rivalry for Gophers football and basketball.
Here’s why Ryan’s success and departure as Badgers basketball coach offer hope for even the downtrodden Gophs:
Ryan wasn’t a big name hired away from a power conference because of the school’s deep pockets and longstanding success. He was exactly the kind of hire the Gophers should always be trying to make — turning a hyphenated coach (Wisconsin-Platteville, Wisconsin-Milwaukee) into a land grant coach.
Ryan’s hiring was a function of savvy, not power or money. He is a symbol of hope to Minnesota because there is no reason, with the right leadership, that the Gophers can’t eventually find their own Bo, unless the Gophers don’t find the right leadership.
In retirement, Ryan offers hope that Wisconsin will remove itself as one of the obstacles between the Gophers and Big Ten basketball success. The Big Ten has become a daunting conference for an unproven young coach such as Richard Pitino. Ryan’s departure offers one less problem, or excuse.
Ryan’s story is hopeful because he did things the way they could and should be done at Minnesota. He left behind no recruiting scandals. He won without competing with Duke and Kentucky for the biggest high school stars. He developed skills and basketball intelligence.
There was a time when I hated to watch the Badgers play. Ryan took full advantage of Big Ten rules allowing gratuitous contact and made the game ugly. He played to his teams’ lack of raw athletic ability by slowing down games and turning them into coaching clinics.
Then he found Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, and proved he could win with three-point shooting and creative offenses, and took his team to consecutive Final Fours, turning an admirable coaching career into one of the great tenures of his era.
Via Twitter, former Bob Knight assistant and current broadcaster Dan Dakich called Knight the greatest Big Ten coach ever and Tom Izzo the most successful recent coach, yet credited Ryan with the “best job ever done at a school.’’
Indiana, Michigan State, Maryland, Michigan and perhaps Purdue are the Big Ten schools with the greatest advantages in the basketball world. They have tradition and natural recruiting bases. Wisconsin won big because of Ryan.
Ryan won as the antithesis to Knight. After one Badgers victory over the Gophers at Williams Arena, someone asked Ryan why he didn’t berate one of his players for a mistake, the way Knight may have.
Ryan looked confused, then alarmed, then said, “You always coach to the next play.’’
For great modern coaches, that should be motto, rallying cry, punch line, epitaph. You don’t spend your time embarrassing a 20-year-old on national television. You teach. You prepare for the next play.
Bud Foster won a national title with the Badgers in 1941 and returned to the Elite Eight in 1947.
Stu Jackson took the Badgers to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1994.
From 1996-2001, three of Dick Bennett’s teams made it to the first round of the tournament, and one made it to the Final Four.
That was the sum of Wisconsin basketball success before Ryan arrived in 2001. He went to 14 straight NCAA tournaments, and just when the rap on him was an inability to make it to the Final Four he went to two in a row, coming close to winning it all last spring.
In his 14 years at Wisconsin, he coached one McDonald’s All-America. In that time, Duke signed 30.
Ryan is one of the greatest coaches of his generation, one who should make the Gophers realize what is possible, and it is strange to acknowledge that he will be missed.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On