“I’ll see you down the road.”
That’s the last thing that future Hall of Fame head coach Bo Ryan said as he walked off the podium at the Kohl Center for the last time. It was an abrupt ending to the career of one of the best and most successful coaches in college basketball history, a man that never finished worse than fourth in his 14 seasons in Madison.
But the timing of this announcement — during the postgame press conference of a win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, three days after losing to Marquette and two weeks before the start of the Big Ten season — is what everyone wants to talk about.
[PODCAST: What were Ryan’s motives?]
Did Bo Ryan really just quit on his team? Did he really just abandon ship when it became obvious that this group, sitting at 7-5 right now, was going to struggle to make the NCAA tournament? Did he really take the loss to Marquette that hard?
It’s possible, I guess, but I have a really hard time believing it. Bo knew better than anyone that this was going to be a rebuilding year. Wisconsin lost two lottery picks, a third NBA player and two five-year guards after last season. He knew what he was in for 18 months ago.
The timing of this decision was a move by Bo Ryan to give his top assistant, Greg Gard, a chance to earn the job on a permanent basis; Gard will be taking over as the interim head coach. I know all this because Ryan said as much tonight.
“Everybody knows, it’s no secret. Every head coach would like their top assistant to be the head coach,” Ryan said. “I wanted to give Coach Gard plenty of time to get the guys ready and to get them into the position where, as a head coach, he has a chance, as every former head coach for their top assistant says, ‘to take a run at the job’. That’s the way this business is, and we accept it.”
This isn’t a new move. Former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun retired in September to force the administration’s hand. They eventually hired Kevin Ollie, who went on to win the 2014 national title. Dean Smith did the same thing at North Carolina, which is why Bill Guthridge ended up with the job for three seasons.
Ryan announced in late-June that he was planning on retiring after this season, only to go back on that statement a couple of months later. There were a couple factors at play. On the one hand, Gard’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer in the spring — he passed away in November — and Ryan wasn’t about to make a decision on something like this at the same time that Gard was trying to find a way to save his father’s life.
But Ryan also couldn’t get any guarantee from Athletic Director Barry Alvarez that Gard would be his replacement; it’s not a secret that Wisconsin wants to make a run at hiring Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. Bennett’s father, Dick, was the coach that Ryan technically succeeded in Madison. I say technically because Dick Bennett resigned three games into the 2000-01 season, and his top assistant, Brad Soderberg, became the interim, coaching a team coming off of a Final Four to a 16-10 record.
Given the talent on this current roster, it’s hard to imagine Gard having much more success than that.
But he’ll have a shot to earn himself the job, thanks to Ryan’s decision to step down in between semesters.
“I’ll evaluate how he works with the team, how they improve, and make a decision at the end of the year,” Alvarez said.
It’s not a guarantee, but there’s not much more he can ask for at this point.