When I was riding from Chicago to Milwaukee for last year’s Wisconsin-Oregon game in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32, I got into a spirited debate with a friend of a friend about Bo Ryan. I was dismayed that the Badgers were perennial tournament underachievers, and was told that I was ungrateful and too impatient, both of which were true. This argument wasn’t the exact inflection point — that would come later in the evening when the Badgers erased a double-digit halftime deficit and reached two consecutive Final Four’s — but it was pretty damn close.
By now, you’re presumably aware that Bo Ryan has announced his plans to retire after this upcoming season. It shouldn’t be surprising when anyone who’s 67 years old decides to stop working, but, to me, it felt until today that Bo was gonna go till 75 or 80 and that the team would have to be pried out of his diminished hands. What the hell else was he gonna do?
But, this year’s loss to Duke in the national championship game just had to sting. While the media ran with his criticism of the officiating after the game, his actual words were far less important of a story than the profound disappointment in his voice. This was his team’s shot and their inherent constraints meant it was unlikely that they’d ever be this close again. It’s cruel and ironic that Bo’s greatest achievement in Division I doubled as the most hurtful, but those are just the stakes.
As they did during the rest of his tenure, the Badgers overachieved the last two seasons, but we noticed them more because they didn’t falter early in a single-elimination tournament that is the ultimate crapshoot in mainstream American sports. Bo’s teams had no business often winning the Big Ten with their natural talent levels, but all the clichés about their hard work and defense and free throws and foul discipline and turnover minimization — the efficiency — were generally true.
Since Rivals began compiling basketball team recruiting rankings in 2003, Wisconsin has never once had a class ranked in the top 25. 247 had them at 45th in 2012 and 2013, 49th in 2011, and out of the top 50 in 2010 and 2014. In some ways this was an indictment on Bo Ryan. After all, the coach is responsible for recruiting. The expectation was always that Bo would find a way to do more with less, but a family friend quipped a couple years ago that he wished Bo would do more with more.
Nevertheless, Wisconsin (and this is true for the football program as well) has either identified market inefficiencies in the way that high school players are evaluated, or they’ve done a superior job at molding them, or some combination of the two. I guess you can be mad that Bo was too proud (or, in the construct of the sportswriter who upholds the honors and tenets of amateurism, virtuous) to ever deviate from the way he did things in player recruiting, but he had very — if not utmost — successful aggregate results.
(One weird thing about Bo Ryan that I could never figure out is that, despite the fact that I know these players were spending a lot of time doing their homework, and many went on to have successful white collar careers, Wisconsin always seemed to rank poorly with graduation rates. Were they more scrupulous than just about anyone else about not bending the rules with sham classes and advisors — which is my guess — or did Bo not actually deserve the reputation as an academic taskmaster?)
An easy player to point to as a testament of Bo’s system is Frank Kaminsky; he became a top-10 pick in this past NBA Draft after a trajectory wherein he was left off an AAU team between his sophomore and junior years of high school, was not widely recruited, and barely even played during his first two seasons in Madison. Recent NCAA titles have been won with players like Jahlil Okafor and Anthony Davis, who are physically imposing freaks. Bo was always competing in these gunfights with Coach K and John Calipari with Swiss Army Knives.
In the end, no, Bo did not win a national title in Division I — he did win four Division III championships at UW-Platteville, and refers to these similarly to how David Blatt pointed to his overseas experience to say he wasn’t a rookie head coach — but he had about as successful a tenure in Madison since 2001 as anybody could have reasonably expected. They never missed the NCAA Tournament. They came so close to winning it the last two years. He’ll be looked back on quite fondly, and it’ll be fascinating to see what the hell he will do next.