Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bo Ryan: A Man Worth Rooting For

Since the NFL is on break, I will break from Packer blogging to talk about my excitement over this years' Wisconsin teams in the Sweet Sixteen, particularly Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin Badgers.

I've been a big fan of Bo Ryan for a long time, long before he became a head coach at Madison.  When I graduated from high school, I planned out my freshman year at UW-Platteville.  One of the classes I registered for most quickly was one of my phy ed credits:  a 9:00AM Basketball class, taught by the man who was entering his third year as head coach of the Division III school.  I was thrilled.  Excited.  Bo was already a household name in my hometown, not too far from Platteville, and the thought of being "one of his players" was exhilarating.

Of course, reality sets in for many a high school graduate, and two things were pretty apparent right away.  Ryan wasn't actually AT class every day, often having an assistant or another teacher covering his class; and I was surrounded by guys (and girls) who had been strong players on their high school teams.  I, as I quickly realized, had been a benchwarmer, at best.

Soon, a class pecking order reared up, with the strongest players somehow making sure they were together each day.  The rest of us switched off trying to take them out, with the whole "we got next" concept meaning half of us were always watching.

Once or twice every two weeks, though, Ryan would be there and watching things over.  Of course, the most testosteroned of players would jack it up even more, in an attempt to show off for the head coach (perhaps hoping he would notice them and offer them a scholarship).

Interestingly enough, in my sophomore year of college, things changed for me.  The coordination, balance, and physical togetherness that had abandoned me ever since I grew eight inches in seventh months in eighth grade manifested itself again...and all those years in-between I had spent dribbling and driving paid off.  Unfortunately, that didn't help me in my freshman year, where I was still painfully awkward.  A year later, I'd be playing point guard and shooting three's for my intramural team, and jumping so high on my layups I could finger-roll the shot just over the rim.  But not that day in Bo Ryan's gym.

No, that one Monday morning, I was struggling, as usual.  The "cool kids" were running up the score, and making sure we knew it...especially since Ryan was watching...and for some reason, even more closely that day.

At the end of class, we were nearly shut out.  We probably had thrown up a couple of three's along the way and made them, but it was a blowout, make no doubt about it.  Ryan had been observing, occasionally stepping in to coach a player on an inside move or how to move along the perimeter, but hadn't intervened.

As the bell rang, I was cross-checked by a kid while trying to dribble to the right side of the arc, and for the first time, Ryan blew his whistle instead of having us argue about whether or not we were fouled.  He grabbed me and put me on the line, and made everyone else line up for the free throw.  Again, this was out of the norm, as we never shot free throws, instead giving the fouled player's team the ball at the top of the key.

Ryan looked around at the players, handed me the ball, and said, "If he makes it, his team wins.  If he misses, you guys win."  And he walked away.  Now, nothing in the world terrified me more than shooting free throws.  A year later, I could shoot them (literally) with my eyes closed, but at that moment I thought only of the one free throw attempt I had in high school: an air ball.

Of all the players to put all the pressure on, he made the worst possible choice: me.

I stood a the free throw line, took only a second to think about it, and made my patented two-handed push shot.  The ball sailed on a flat arc, tonged against the back of the rim, and went straight down through the net.  Ryan again blew the whistle and said, "See you Wednesday!" and left.

Any smile I had was quickly silenced by the menacing glares of the "cool kids" who saw what was likely a 40-6 victory snatched away from them by the least likely of players.  I took a couple more shoulders as I grabbed my shoes and headed to Biebel Hall for my 10:00 class.

What was interesting over the next couple of years at UW-P is that Ryan seemed to have my face memorized.  No, I doubt he ever knew my name, but he always kind of lit up when he saw me and said, "Hey, how you doin'?"  Of course, maybe in my own mind, I exaggerate his reactions, but our passing conversations were always something I looked forward to.

On one occasion during my junior year, I met Ryan on the rec fields behind Pickard Hall.  I shouted out, "Hey coach!  Just so you know, I'm coming out for the team this year!"  Again, he lit up and replied, "Hey, come on out.  We need you!"  Another passing quip, but one I didn't mind mentioning to my girlfriend and the guys on the wing.

I never realized it, probably not until I was coaching basketball myself, but I think he picked the worst player on the floor that day for a reason: to show that anybody can beat you and that you can never allow humility to escape your game.  He sat that day watching a bunch of prima donnas who once-upon-a-time were the big men on campus chest-thump each other in a college phy ed class, eschewing any semblance of sportsmanship.  You could never argue that those kids weren't the better athletes, but it didn't mean they were better people, or even the better team.

Was I Bo Ryan's David that one day, showing the Goliaths that they weren't quite as cool as they thought they were?  Who knows.  But, I do know that after notching four Division III National Championships, it didn't take long for Milwaukee and Madison to take notice, and no one cheered louder when Ryan became a Badger in 2001.  Since those days, Wisconsin, once the laughing stock of the Big Ten, never finished below fourth place in the conference, never missed a Big Dance, and Bo will now be coaching his fourth Sweet Sixteen appearance.

All the while, he's done it without the incredible raw athletes you see at other programs.  Most of the names he's had success with haven't gone on to NBA success.  No, names like Brian Butch, Kirk Penney, Greg Stiemsma, Alando Tucker, and Mike Wilkenson have been the cornerstone players of a defense-minded teams that have surround some talented point guards, like Devin Harris, Trevon Hughes, and now, Jordan Taylor...aggressive, defense-minded point guards just like Bo Ryan was in his day.

When I think of Ryan's teams, I think of that quote by Jerry Kramer, who insisted that Lombardi's Packers were not successful because they had better athletes than everyone else.  "We had the best NFL history."  Perhaps those Packers were less than the pinnacle athletes of their day, but there was no greater show of synergy in which all those players complimented each other and played as one cohesive, ego-less unit under one great head coach.

I guess that's what I like about Bo Ryan.  He values work ethic over raw athleticism, teamwork over self-promotion, and defense above all.  He's not about the show.  He's about wins...wins as a team. We Wisconsinites have learned that lesson well over the last ten years he's been head coach of the Badgers.

But I learned that lesson a long time ago...directly from the man himself.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Packer Fans Cheated Out Of Offseason of Gloating

I want my money back.  Is there some place we can go to get a refund?

I clearly remember last February that the Packers won the Super Bowl.  Yep, pretty sure.  And as I recall, we went through a season of plenty of doubts, with plenty of abuse from Bears fans along the way.  Heck, I think the Lions beat us once, too.

It's the Super Bowl season that shouldn't have been, but was.  It was the "Holy Cow They Did It!" season that no one really saw coming once the MASH helicopters settled upon Lambeau Field to remove the injured players.

Now, given the complete and utter shock that we won the Lombardi Trophy to begin with, we needed a little time for it to completely settle in.  Then, we needed to search and target every Viking and Bear fan who had mocked us over the last few years and return it in spades.

But, we never got the chance.  Not really.  The Super Bowl win, to many people, seems like a long time ago already.  For one brief shining week, the population of Wisconsin and Packer fans around the world stood united in glory, a shared bond that brought together everyone who wore Green and Gold.

Then, in an instant, the world shut it down.  First of all, the good folks of Wisconsin were quickly distracted, then completely polarized by a partisan budget plan that pitted the same folks who sat next to each other on the aluminum bleachers in Lambeau only a month before.  The conversations in every local diner across the state no longer debated Thompson, McCarthy, and Rodgers, but Walker, Fitzgerald, and absent senators.

The Super Bowl celebration time we Packers fans were owed was being squandered.

Then, a series of very unfortunate events took place around he world, overshadowing the victory.  It's hard to feel all that comfortable congratulating yourself on being a Packer fan when you see people in deep suffering:  a tsunami in Japan, civil wars in Libya and Yemen...all these things make us step out of our self-absorbing Super Bowl Hangover and spend time debating the merits of nuclear energy versus its dangers.

And then, of course, the ultimate in betrayals:  the NFL itself locked itself down, saw a players union decertify, and in the midst of all these very real human events, enact a very public pissing match about how to divide billions of dollars amongst themselves.

Yes, it is disheartening to hear Adrian Peterson describe his situation as "slavery".  Not when there are folks making far less than his $10M salary taking hefty pay cuts.  When there are Japanese citizens fleeing their country in droves while scientists literally sacrifice their lives in broken-down reactors.  When our country has engaged in another foreign war, when the last two have dragged on for going on at least six years.

And in the midst of all of this global chaos, the Packers won a Super Bowl.  This is a time we're supposed to be enjoying the fruits of our fanaticism.  We're supposed to be smugly reminding everyone that we pick 32nd in the draft and flock to every public appearance a player makes.  Only problem is, the players can't make any appearances on behalf of the team.  And, there's no Fan Fest to look forward to.  Draft Party?  None of that, either.

I feel cheated.  We're supposed to be celebrating this team, and in a way, ourselves, for being Super Bowl champions.  That month or two of pure glee has been preempted by nearly every form of politics and tragedy.  Yes, it's selfish. And I know that the events in the world, in real life, are more important than a sport.  In many cases, they are affecting the lives of people we know and love, if not our own lives.

But, thinking back to 1996 and the wave of emotion that rode all the way through into the next season, you have to wonder if not only is our own celebration been muted, but the momentum a team might get from an offseason when you finally don't have to think, "Wait until next year".  The Packers could be a dynasty team, in all seriousness...but what impact would a delay to the season, much less canceling the season, have on that potential legacy?

This is our time to celebrate, and let all those Viking and Bear fans in the next cubicle get what's been coming to them.  I have no doubt that those Viking and Bear fans have to privately chuckle at having the carpet chucked out from under us.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I'm Back

I'm back.

Oh, crap.  The NFL isn't.  I just can't seem to get this timing thing down, can I?

I've been away for a month or so, minus an off-season episode of Cheesehead Radio (and a must-listen, if you haven't already).  And it's time to get back into the swing of things, as there is plenty to comment on, and many draft picks to obsess over.

It may come a surprise to you, but writing is one of my greatest passions.  Match that up with my passion for the Green Bay Packers, and you may wonder why in the world I've been away for a while.  Well, in all honesty, I've been caught up in some real-life drama, and it was too difficult for me to separate what was going on in my life/profession and my Green Bay Packers.  Politics and Packers don't (and shouldn't mix), and the former has been my focus (if not my obsession) over the last month or so.

But, a very wise woman (namely, my wife) has helped me to come to grips that one of the best ways I relieve my stressors is to write, and that I have been neglecting the passion that not only keeps me focused, but keeps me connected with the greatest fans on the planet.  And despite all of the difficult weeks I've been through, there is something that connects all of us together, regardless of who we are, where we live, and what we do:  we're all Green Bay Packer fans.  And this wise woman told me to get back to work.

Thanks, ma'am.

As Kris Burke stated pretty clearly on the offseason episode of Cheesehead Radio, there's been enough in the news lately to divide us.  It's time to focus on things that bring us together, and the Packers should be one of them...even if us coming together to demand the owners and players come together is how it must be.

So, as my "getting back behind the keyboard" gift to Jayme, who has petitioned for this on numerous occasions, check out Cheesehead Radio on iTunes for a bonus track of all the 2010 Show Intros.  The cost to you?   None, because A) we're all Packer fans, and B) I have no head for business or marketing, anyway.

Keep it tuned here at TundraVision and keep an eye out at Cheesehead Radio in the very near future for the first of our draft specials...LIVE!