MADISON - The Bo Ryan era at the University of Wisconsin has been the most successful in program history but it will come to end at the conclusion of the 2015-2016 season.
In a statement released early Monday afternoon, the UW coach announced that after 15 seasons he will retire after this upcoming year.
“Back in the spring, in the days after the national championship game, (UW Director of Athletics) Barry Alvarez and I discussed the possibility of me retiring,” Ryan said in the statement.” I’ve always been told that is not a decision to make right after a season is completed. Barry thankfully encouraged me to take some time to think about it and I have done that. I considered retiring this summer or coaching one more season.
“I’ve decided to coach one more season with the hope that my longtime assistant Greg Gard eventually becomes the head coach at Wisconsin. I am looking forward to another year with our program, including our players, my terrific assistant coaches, our office staff and everyone who supports Wisconsin basketball here in Madison, around the state and across the country.”
The 67-year-old Ryan informed his assistant coaches of his decision Monday morning and soon after that he told the players.
“It was kind of shocking,” freshman forward Ethan Happ told WQAD-TV in the Quad Cities. “I thought he’d be here for a while, at least until I was out of here because he signed a contract through 2020. But that’s the way it goes. It will be special to be part of Coach Ryan’s last season and last games here at Wisconsin.”
Ryan's decision, which according to multiple reports was not a result of any kind of health concerns, comes after the most successful back-to-back years in program history. Under his leadership, the Badgers made it to the past two Final Fours – doubling the number the program had gotten to before his arrival in 2001. He also won his fourth Big Ten regular season conference title and his third conference tournament title. While at Wisconsin, he’s won 357 games and his .717 winning percentage in Big Ten play is the best of any coach in conference history. Of Wisconsin’s 18 seasons in which they’ve won at least 19 games, Ryan has been at the helm for 14 of them.
Known by the outside world for a snarl reminiscent of the school’s mascot when an official's call doesn’t go UW’s way, Ryan will be remembered by his former players for the impact he had on their lives both on the court and off.
“Just the way he teaches the game and uses the game to teach all of his players as people, not just basketball players,” former point guard Jordan Taylor told ESPN Milwaukee on Monday. “There’s never a moment he lets pass where he can’t use it as a lesson or a teaching point for all of us. I think that’s what you come to appreciate while you’re there and even more so after you leave. I don’t think there is another coach who prepares you for things during and after basketball the way he does.”
Now UW must start preparing for life after Ryan. It will be the first time Alvarez will be faced with finding a new basketball coach in his 11 years on the job, though he’s had to make similar high-profile hires the past few years on the football side of things.
One option is Gard, who has been an assistant under Ryan since 1993, first at UW-Platteville, then UW-Milwaukee and now for the past 14 seasons in Madison. He serves as the associate head coach and has a big role in devising game plans, along with a large responsibility in recruiting. Though he has never been a head coach at the college level, Gard has interviewed for other head coaching positions in recent years.
"I think he is just as important of a coach to the program as Coach Ryan has been," Taylor said. "He does a lot of the scouting and a lot of the developmental stuff.
"I don’t think there is anybody more fitting that could take the job."
The idea of a coach-in-waiting is something familiar to Wisconsin. Alvarez did it when he gave up his headset in the summer before the 2005 season, naming Bret Bielema as his successor. Two current Big Ten coaches – Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Purdue’s Matt Painter – ascended to their spots in a similar fashion. However, a UW official said the job won’t be officially posted until after next season, meaning any finality to who the next coach at Wisconsin will be won’t be had for eight or nine months.
For Gard, though, the opportunity is one that he has waited for and one that he knew would be coming at some point.
“He’s coached a long time,” Gard said on the Mike Heller Show on 1070AM in Madison. “Nobody is going to coach forever as much as maybe you hope they can. I wasn’t shocked but at the same time you’re obviously like, ‘It’s real now.’”
It is real now. And it makes those around Ryan look back at what he’s done in his 40-plus years coach college basketball.
“For somebody to be able to coach as long as he has, and to be able to do it at this level, is just astronomical in terms of what he’s been able to accomplish in his career,” Gard said. “I think that’s what needs to be celebrated and what the light really needs to be shone upon. Look what this gentleman has done and the impact he has had on the game and in this state.”
The looking back can wait, though. Ryan and Gard have a season to get ready for and it will be a challenge. The 2015-2016 team is a group that will be trying to replace five players from last year’s rotation, including a pair of guys in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker that were taken in the top 20 of the NBA Draft last Thursday.
“We have a team to coach and a team to get ready for this upcoming season,” Gard said. “(We) won’t approach it any differently then (we) would approach it any other season.”
Whether he’ll have a chance to run the program that Ryan has turned into a Big Ten power is something he’ll worry about when it presents itself.
“Whatever happens beyond that down the road as the (job) process unfolds and steps are unveiled on what needs to happen, hopefully I’ll be involved with that,” Gard said.
Gard won’t be the only name up for consideration. Alvarez will almost certainly pick up the phone and touch base with people he has on his short list of candidates that he keeps for all the programs he oversees. One of them is surely former UW assistant and current Virginia coach Tony Bennett. He served under Ryan for two seasons before joining his father, Dick, at Washington State as an assistant. He later took over as the head coach and led the Cougars to two NCAA tournaments. He left for Virginia in 2009 and after a slow start, has turned the Cavaliers into a juggernaut in the ACC, winning each of the past two regular season titles.