Bo Ryan won at Wisconsin.
That’s all you need to know to measure Ryan’s greatness as a coach. Winning consistently at Wisconsin was thought to be impossible, but the coach who retired yesterday brought relentless excellence to a program that was an nothing more than an occasional irritant to Big Ten competition until his arrival.
After the myriad eulogies for Ryan that were published yesterday, you already know the what –
After the program totaled seven NCAA appearances from 1939-2001, Ryan took them to 14 in his 14 seasons.
Wisconsin never finished outside the top four in the Big Ten.
The Badgers won a single regular season Big Ten Championship until Ryan took over. Then they won four.
There’s more statistical evidence of excellence, much more, but we aren’t here to list Ryan’s accomplishments, only to explain them.
Here are seven of the reasons Wisconsin flourished under the singularly consistent leadership of a man who didn’t get his shot at the big time until well after turning 50:
1 – Bo built a culture of development and precision. Wisconsin players improved – always. They grew physically, but the way they understood how their team was designed to function appeared to be at a different level from its competition.
2 – Bo recruited to a model. How many times after Ryan established the Badgers as a premiere program in the Big Ten did you look at a Wisconsin player and say, “He’s so Wisconsin,”? It wasn’t just the tall white guys like Jon Leuer and Frank Kaminsky who could shoot, it was athletic guards like Devin Harris, Alando Tucker, and Jordan Taylor who could pressure the ball, and appeared committed to the collective success of the Badgers rather than thrilling producers at ESPN who look for highlight dunks to feature on Sportscaster.
3 – Bo recruited regionally. Most of his players came from within a couple hour drive of Madison, and they were aware of the Wisconsin brand, the meteorological challenges, and the culture of the area. That may seem like a parochial attitude, but familiarity and a desire to play for the home team is a potentially important metric in building a functional team. There are national programs like Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky that can recruit the best talent from coast to coast and succeed. The rest need to be strong in their regions. Ryan knew that, embraced it, and enjoyed the fruits of the best Wisconsin-type players in his area because of that.
4 – Bo recruited high schools rather than AAU programs. Building relationships with high school coaches is an antiquated notion these days. It seems inefficient to build trust with a high school coach who might have one high D-1 kid run through his program every five years when an AAU coach might have five on his roster simultaneously, but Ryan is a coach who likes being around coaches who coach instead of coaches who talk on cell phones while their teams play. Instead of doing deals with the coaches of five star kids, Ryan went after kids who could help the Badgers win regardless of their Rivals rating.
5 – Under Bo, Wisconsin did what they did. Everyone knows that Ryan ran the swing offense. The style of play at Wisconsin was well-defined which would have made the Badgers a little easier to prepare for if they weren’t so damn proficient at what they did. Doing what they did better than anyone could attack it of defend it worked better for Wisconsin than trying to outfox and out-scheme opponents with trickery.
6 – Bo was no a celebrity coach. Athletic directors try to make splashes these days by hiring charismatic coaches who become branding tools for the university. John Calipari, Rick Pitino, and Tom Crean all enjoy the fruits of stardom. They aren’t just coaches – they are performers. Ryan was a coach – period. Winning friends and enthralling crowds didn’t fueled Ryan’s fire. That’s one of the reasons why he won four D-III national championships at UW-Platteville before moving on to UW-Milwaukee and then Madison at the age of 53. He became a celebrity because he was a great coach, not a coach because he wanted to be a celebrity.
7 – Players didn’t like Bo – they respected him. There are many coaches more interested in popularity – or appearing to be liked – by his players. Ryan wasn’t one of them. He was a teacher – a stern taskmaster who believed basketball should be played a specific way with a specific mindset. Effectively communicating his vision was his passion and it brought discipline to a game that can be played without it, but not consistently.
It would be easy and trite to write that Ryan was the perfect coach at the perfect time for the perfect program, but he would have been just as successful during any era at any school.
He set a standard that will be difficult to meet for those who follow him and others who are compared with him.
After reading all you have about Ryan, you might be asking the same question I am – if Ryan set the standard for consistent excellence in college basketball’s best conference, why don’t more coaches emulate his tactics? That’s a great question – a better question than any answer I can come up with.