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Strike Bo Ryan Down, And Wisconsin Will Only Become More Powerful

Bo Ryan built Wisconsin into an unlikely college basketball powerhouse, and his sudden retirement doesn't figure to change that.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

In the moments after his team's lackluster win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan just up-and-left.

It was an unceremonious announcement if there ever was one. There was no pregame nor postgame celebration in his honor, no statement beforehand, no plan for a Derek Jeter-like retirement tour. It happened against a no-name opponent, after a game nobody was watching.

Just like that, the most consistently dominant college basketball coach of this generation was gone.


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We knew this was coming, at least at some point, and probably sooner than later. Ryan announced this summer that this would be his last season, then walked that back. He retired for real this week in order to give his longtime assistant, Greg Gard, a shot at the full-time job.

That makes a kind of sense. But on the other hand: right now?

Weirdly, Ryan's last 12 games were the least Bo Ryan-like games we've ever seen. Wisconsin lost to Western Illinois, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette at home, giving Ryan a 215-15 all-time record at the Kohl Center; during the rest of his time coaching the Badgers, Ryan lost an average of one home game per season. With Big Ten play about to start, Ryan's streaks of never finishing outside the top four in the conference and making the NCAA Tournament in every single year of his career in Madison both seemed in jeopardy, and the Badgers seemed far removed from the team that just went to back-to-back Final Fours.

It took Wisconsin six minutes to score one point—one point!—against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. That doesn't happen to NCAA Tournament teams, particularly teams that already have lost to Western Illinois and UW-Milwaukee. As a writer, I was tempted to opine that Ryan's streaks were effectively over—but I couldn't bring myself to do it, because Bo Ryan was going to make the NCAA Tournament, and he was going to finish in the top four in the conference. That's just what he did.


If you only knew the power … —Photo by Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

I grew up an Iowa Hawkeyes fan and went to college at Northwestern, so I know about Ryan firsthand. I'm still scarred by Wisconsin's constant beatdowns of my teams, so much so that I'm not convinced that Ryan's ghost won't still be coaching this year's Wisconsin Lite team. Every year under Ryan, the Badgers would look beatable, look like they'd lost too much talent to be good again; every year, they'd end up crushing my hopes and dreams.

There are a lot of Big Ten coaches breathing a sigh of relief right now, yet still scared to death that the Ryan era isn't actually over.

You know who won't miss Bo Ryan? All the other staffs in the Big Ten. Guy was a thorn in their side for years. Lots of happy programs today.

— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein)December 16, 2015

No other coach in the Big Ten—and maybe only one or two in the whole damn country—commands that kind of respect. Other programs might miss their coaches, but Michigan State is more than Tom Izzo, and Kentucky is more than John Calipari. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski is a closer comparison, but he now wins with one-and-done, NBA-ready talent, and has shown an ability to adapt to a changing college basketball landscape.

For better or worse, Ryan was stubborn. He didn't change his with the times, not at all, and he didn't really adjust his system for the players he had. Of course, that's because he could plug in just about anyone and make his system work.


Ryan was known—and became infamous among some college basketball fans—for that system, which called for an ultra-slow tempo, efficient offense and lockdown defense, all of which threw opponents out of whack. It worked when Ryan didn't have top tier talent, and it tended to frustrate seemingly better opposing teams. When Ryan did get better talent, like 2015 NBA draft picks Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, he used the same principles to create the most efficient offense ever known to mankind.

In last season's Final Four, Calipari's previously undefeated Wildcats were legitimately baffled by Ryan's Badgers, who scored an incredible 1.23 points per possession against the best defense of at least the last decade and beat Kentucky to advance to title game.

"I mean, they out-rebounded us by 12 rebounds," Calipari said afterward. "That doesn't happen. You think about this. We had six turnovers for the game. We shot 90 percent from the free-throw line, 60 percent from the three, and 48 percent from the field, and we lost?"

"I'm afraid this battle station is quite operational." —Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Now Ryan is gone, but the next Wisconsin team, whether led by Greg Gard, Virginia's Tony Bennett, UNI's Ben Jacobson or a candidate we haven't heard about yet, is going to be good. Why? Because Wisconsin is always maddeningly good. And this will be Ryan's lasting legacy.

Before him, Wisconsin basketball was awful. The Badgers had made seven NCAA Tournaments in the previous 63 years. Ryan made 14 of them in 14 seasons. Before Ryan, Wisconsin hadn't won a Big Ten Championship since 1947. Ryan won four. His teams finished ranked in the AP poll 11 out of his 14 seasons. Only three other Badgers teams had ever finished the season ranked in the AP poll.

Anyone college age or younger has only known Wisconsin as a good basketball program. That's shocking to people who followed campus hoops before 2000, but in the end, that's what Ryan did: he created a juggernaut at a place that had rarely sniffed basketball success. So even though he has now abruptly left behind what may end up as his worst team ever, only a fool would count the Badgers out.

"I'll see you down the road," Ryan said in his final press conference. As a fan of teams who already have seen far too much of his black magic, that's precisely what I'm scared of.