It’s rare to see a Bo Ryan design unfold in any way other than how it was drawn up. And yet, the 68-year-old’s final act as the leader of the Wisconsin Badgers was a broken play.
Ryan, barely keeping his emotions at bay, parked himself behind the microphone following a win over Texas A&M Corpus-Christi and announced his decision to fast-track a retirement initially slotted for the end of the season. He quietly exited the red-and-white ride he’d been driving for 14-plus years and handed over the keys to protégé Greg Gard.
With Wisconsin sitting on a 7-5 record, some will say Ryan simply quit on a team that was destined for mediocrity. Some may even claim the last-minute pivot casts a shadow over the indelible legacy Ryan would have left in his wake.
Those people are flat-out wrong.
“This was a decision months in the making,” Ryan explained. “I brought this up to Barry back in April. He advised me to take some time to think it over and I appreciated that. But in recent weeks, I have come to the conclusion that now is the right time for me to retire and for Greg Gard to have the opportunity to coach the team for the remainder of the season.”
A victory over Texas A&M Corpus-Christi didn’t cause Ryan to make a bee-line toward the neon exit sign, and, despite the timing, it’s hard to believe the Badgers’ uneven start was the culprit either.
No, the night in question likely came months earlier, on a Monday in Indianapolis, when Wisconsin’s fairy-tale season culminated with a heart-piercing loss to the Duke Blue Devils on college basketball’s biggest stage. Ryan’s Badgers, built on old-school principles, went toe-to-toe with a perennial juggernaut and the modernized state of collegiate hoops that they represented.
Duke, led by fabled coach Mike Krzyzewski, was in pursuit of the program’s fifth national title and second in six years. However, the anatomy of this Krzyzewski club hardly fell in line with the school’s previous national championship teams. The 2014-15 Blue Devils were spearheaded by basketball adolescence, reflecting Coach K’s decision to finally embrace the one-and-done revolution in college basketball.
Freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, three of Duke’s top four scorers, would jet to the NBA following the season. The trio of talented frosh were three of nine McDonald’s All-Americans on Duke’s roster and were selected Nos. 3, 10 and 24, respectively, in the 2015 NBA Draft. Quinn Cook, the lone senior in Duke’s starting lineup, was just one of two upperclassmen – the other being junior Amile Jefferson – who played substantial minutes.
Meanwhile, across the hardwood, Wisconsin epitomized the Bo Ryan gospel of commitment and player development. He preached substance over household names and reeled in players with off-the-charts basketball IQs. Despite not having a single McDonald’s All-American, the Badgers churned out two 2015 first-round picks in senior Frank Kaminksy and junior Sam Dekker, the only five-star recruit in Madison.
Kaminsky, who swept every major national player of the year award, went from playing under eight minutes per game and averaging less than two points as a freshman to scoring nearly 19 points per game his senior year. And, while Kaminsky’s strides were the most drastic, it was a similar script for the other three seniors, one junior and two sophomores who received impactful minutes.
Composed of seasoned veterans, Wisconsin was a team on a mission after falling to Kentucky, 74-73, in the Final Four the year before. Unfortunately, the Badgers’ first trip to the national championship since 1941 was a losing effort. With “One Shining Moment” and a confetti shower within reach, an eight-point surge from another baby-faced Blue Devil, Grayson Allen, resuscitated Duke and ignited a comeback that trampled Wisconsin’s championship aspirations.
In his postgame interview, with barely time for the loss to cool, Ryan let his emotional exhaustion do the talking. He not only took a jab at the way the contest was officiated, but pushed his chips to the center of the table and put the whole new direction of college basketball on blast.
“We don’t do a rent-a-player,” Ryan said adamantly, later adding, “I like trying to build from within. It’s just the way I am. And to see these guys grow over the years and to be here last year and lose a tough game, boom, they came back. They said what they wanted to do, they put themselves into that position, and they won’t forget this for a long time.”
The frustration flooded out of the silver-haired veteran. Once again, he had fallen victim to college basketball’s transformation deep in the confines of March and he was going to make sure his defiance was heard. Ryan made it abundantly clear that the game’s one-and-done era went against every one of his beliefs. For more than 40 years, he endorsed a process founded on trust and long-term commitment, and it allowed him to mold amateur athletes as basketball players and young men. Now, he was simply fed up.
In the end, it’s hard to believe that Ryan, a coach with nearly 750 wins and two Final Fours, couldn’t have adapted to the game’s changing style. It wasn’t an inability. It was a resistance. Ryan could have continued to coach and compete with the same approach he employed for a short lifetime. He could have eventually made it back to the national title game. But it wouldn’t have been this season and it likely wouldn’t have been the year after. He had lost seniors and journeymen and didn’t have the kind of top-shelf recruiting class that would allow him to circumvent the rebuilding process.
We may never definitively know the true reasons behind the timing of his eventual departure, but Ryan seemed to get a good look at what college basketball had become and was none too pleased. It’s hard to imagine that his exit doesn’t boil down to that final stand at Lucas Oil Stadium, where he stood in the face of a legend, a powerhouse and an uprising, and came up just short.