Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Bo Ryan: A Man Worth Rooting For
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 team...T-E-A-M...in 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.