Just under two years ago, Bo Ryan was a pariah. Irate that redshirt freshman Jarrod Uthoff sought to transfer, Bo initially blocked the rest of the Big Ten, regional rival Marquette, and the entire ACC on the basis that the teams might compete in the conference’s preseason challenge with the Big Ten a year or three down the line. He went on Mike and Mike to defend himself, continued to appear as a power-mad despot, and eventually relented to public pressure to grant Uthoff the freedom to pick a school of his choice outside the Big Ten (he wound up transferring to Iowa without a scholarship).
The year before, sophomore guard Stacey Poole decided to leave Kentucky (eventually for Georgia Tech). “Stacey and his family felt it is in his best interest to play somewhere else and I fully respect the family and their decision,” John Calipari wrote at the time. “I want to wish Stacey nothing but the best in whatever and wherever he chooses to go. He will always be a part of our family and the Big Blue Nation.”
The outrage over how Bo handled the Uthoff situation would entirely dissipate, and Calipari’s graceful release of Poole was a blip on the radar. The coaches’ Wisconsin and Kentucky teams meet on Saturday night, and it’s pretty easy to imagine the type of column or screaming head that lauds Bo for doing things the right way (with white guys, implicitly) while damning Calipari to hell for going to battle with mercenaries who pass through Lexington on a layover en route to the NBA.
Bo spent 15 years as a D3 coach at UW-Platteville and two more at UW-Milwaukee before getting the Badgers job in 2001 when he was 54. John Calipari has been around for nearly a decade longer in our collective sports consciousnesses, but he’s 55 right now. Like his players, he was precociously talented, earning the head coach job at UMass when he was 31 and his NBA gig with the Nets when he was 37. (In advance: We’re aware the latter didn’t work out.)
As previously alluded, there is a big talent discrepancy between their two teams. Wisconsin might have some NBA role players in Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, and Frank Kaminsky, but you don’t need much more than a set of eyes to conclude that they’re in a different raw athletic stratosphere than Julius Randle, the Harrison Twins, and Alex Poythress.
Still, the stylistic differences between the two men, and their respective teams, do not necessarily mean that one is a better coach or person. There is not a man in the world who is more adept at molding an 18-year-old preternatural basketball phenom into a professional in a year’s time than Calipari — if that were easy, nearly everyone would do it — and there aren’t many leaders in America (sports, or otherwise) who squeeze as much juice out of their teams as Bo.
In any event, it’s my opinion that both Bo Ryan and John Calipari are, ultimately, overwhelmingly positive influences for their players’ futures. They both demand accountability from their stars. They’re both great coaches. (Also, they both yell a lot.) Nevertheless, that they and their teams are so otherwise divergent should make for one hell of a compelling basketball matchup.