On Tuesday night, former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan caught the basketball world by surprise, announcing his abrupt retirement after a 64-49 win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
Since then, there have been many, many penned homages making their rounds across the interwebs, diving into Ryan’s storied 14-plus year run at Wisconsin, using an unparalleled style to bring the Badgers to the NCAA tournament every year and turn the program into a sudden powerhouse.
This isn’t one of those stories. I didn’t spend any time around Ryan outside of the press conferences and media days during my five years covering Big Ten basketball, which provided only a small – sometimes entertaining, sometimes maddening – window into the guy he is. But the feeling of the Big Ten changes without Ryan in the ranks of high-profile coaches across the league. And so here are three small thoughts on the legend’s retirement.
From an opposing coach: Gophers coach Richard Pitino remembered running into Ryan on the recruiting trail this season shortly after he had announced he’d only coach one more season. “You’re kind of like what’s going on, what are you doing coach?" he said Wednesday. "You could tell he was kind of uncertain, that he was kind of leaning that way a little bit. I’ve learned a lot from him … We did beat him, that was nice, we can say that, when they were really good. But I think what I learned the most from him is he recruited guys that fit the way he wants to play. But he also never beat himself in the sense of never fouled – or in his mind, he never fouled – and they never turned the ball over. As simple as that is, playing against them made me realize you’ve got to hold your guys accountable to those things. He did a great job of teaching his guys not to do that. The stability he built at Wisconsin, really, really impressive. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, but he will be. He deserves to be. He’s done it at every level. He’s a good guy, he’s a guy I’ve spoken to a bunch when I’m on the road, a fun guy to be around. I hope he’s enjoying retirement because he’s given a lot to this game.”
From the fan’s perspective: It’s a testament to Ryan that diehard Gophers fans were both solemnly saluting his success and cheering his exit on Tuesday night and Wednesday. For Minnesota, Ryan’s rise at Wisconsin has meant a couple things. As our Jim Souhan pointed out in today’s Star Tribune, the Badgers’ rise to prominence during Ryan’s tenure provided a blueprint, of sorts, to how Minnesota might someday do the same. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “If Wisconsin can do it, why can’t we?” in my years on the beat. But Wisconsin’s elevation to powerhouse also meant a very one-sided and changed rivalry. With Ryan at the helm, Wisconsin's methodical pace and perfection of the fundamentals battled the Gophers. Since he took the job before the 2001-02 season, the Gophers are 6-18 against Wisconsin. From 1970 to the year before Ryan took the job – omitting the seven seasons that were redacted due to scandal – Minnesota was 35-11 against the Badgers. With Ryan gone, Gophers fans can hope they’ve got one fewer tyrant to deal with. “He’s a great coach, he’s led a great program for so many years and obviously it’s unfortunate to see him go, he’s one of the best coaches there has ever been in the Big Ten,” Minnesota senior Joey King said. But how will he look back on Ryan’s departure when they face the Badgers in March? “I won’t mind a bit,” he said with a grin.
From a media member: Some coaches walk up to the podium, talk about “great efforts,” and spew a lot of straight-faced coach-speak. That was not Bo Ryan. The best Bo Ryan, in my experience, was on Big Ten media day each year, when he was just warming up. You could almost feel how pent up he was from not having enough causes to exercise his dry humor and long-winded, story-telling sarcasm. It was also possibly the best mood you’d catch him in all season. He held court at the one-on-one tables, giving his blunt thoughts on just about everything and occasionally spinning yarns. You'd know they were yarns by the way his eyes sparkled as he told them. He also was never afraid to tell it like it was, like it really was, Those at the table were almost always laughing or smiling; Ryan was at the epicenter, sporting that self-amused half-grin of his. This year, on the media day podium, Ryan was asked exactly two questions, using the queries as a tee to launch into his theories about the state of the game and folks meddling with it. Among his comments: “Whatever it is, just play good,” which is about as close to a Bo-ism as I can think of. It was always pretty clear that Ryan loved the game the same as if it was played on a dirt court in a back yard somewhere in his Pennsylvania home town. He was often gruff and always old-school. He snapped at my media day question this year – the second of the two – for calling the game a “product.” He snapped at me several times, actually, over the years, if he didn’t like the way my question was worded or he didn’t like its implications. He never liked media members that sounded a little too knowledgeable, and he was known for occasionally demanding to know if that particular individual had ever played the game. He was a live wire. You asked him questions on the league’s weekly teleconference at your own risk. Sometimes the answer was a brilliant one for the notebook; sometimes he decided he was going to ask you questions instead; sometimes he just said “I’m not answering that” and moved on. He never said what you wanted him to say, but sometimes it was better. That unexpectedness will be missed.