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Thursday, June 26, 2014
Badgers embody Bo Ryan's toughness

By C.L. Brown

Editor's note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today, we unveil No. 7: Wisconsin's Bo Ryan. On Friday, we release No. 6.

Bo Ryan knew he'd likely be the one to get tested, yet he never backed down from the challenge every time he ventured with his Chester (Pa.) High School teammates to find the best pickup games around town.

Ryan was often the only white person on the court -- sometimes the entire neighborhood -- during a time in the 1960s when racial relations were complicated.

Bo Ryan
Bo Ryan learned how to be tough by playing in pickup games in Chester, Pennsylvania.
It was on those courts of Chester that classmate Ted Cottrell, a longtime NFL defensive coordinator who had stints with the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers, said Ryan developed his fight.

"Things could get kind of tough down there," Cottrell said. "And you better hold your own and not back down from people or they're going to talk trash at you and try to intimidate you."

Ryan wasn't easily intimidated.

Cottrell learned that while he was Ryan's teammate on the football team. Ryan played quarterback with Cottrell -- who is now an NFL appeals officer responsible for reviewing discipline for on-field conduct -- playing center.

Ryan took his licks running the option out of the I-formation and would come back for more. He developed a rapport with Cottrell to the point that they would run a play no one else knew they were running.

"If no one lined up over me at center, we had an automatic 'Goose' play," Cottrell said. "I'd go block, and it worked to perfection every single time."

Cottrell said the team was positioned to have a big senior year behind Ryan at quarterback. But when Ryan signed up to attend a basketball camp during the start of football practice, his coach gave him an ultimatum to choose between sports.

Cottrell said Ryan's father had already paid $100 to attend the camp, so his choice was already made. Chester's football team won only one game that season without him, but it led him to concentrate on basketball as a senior.

And that kept him on those playground courts. Ryan knew he was good enough to play with the best in his area, and, as the starting point guard, he helped Chester to a 25-1 record as a senior. He folded that same self-assuredness into his coaching career.

Few programs have embodied the character of their coach the way Wisconsin has, and Ryan represents Chester to the fullest. He's made sure to instill his hometown toughness in the Badgers.

"He's been through it. He knows what tough is," Cottrell said. "Tough isn't jumping up and down shouting or getting in people's faces … He can demonstrate it without being vocal all the time. He gives you that look. You ever see his look? He's got one of those stares."

Ryan didn't blink when he entered the Big Ten. He won his first six head-to-head matchups with Michigan State and Tom Izzo, who was one season removed from a national championship and the established league giant when Ryan first entered the league.

The Badgers won at least a share of the league in each of his first two seasons in 2002 and 2003, breaking a drought that stretched back to 1947. During his 13-year tenure, the Badgers never finished lower than fourth in the standings and have won double-digit games in conference every season but one.

Wisconsin entered Ryan's first Final Four appearance as the coach used to walk on the blacktop courts. The Badgers were quietly confident they would beat Kentucky -- and all of its future NBA draft picks -- and came within a last-second 3-pointer from pulling it off.

Not that Ryan needs any validation as a coach. He won four Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Platteville.

"He's always won wherever he's been," Cottrell said. "But he's not one of those guys bragging and boasting about what he's done."

Ryan probably won't even brag about the team he has returning next season. The Badgers return all but one starter from the top seven players in their rotation and will be an early favorite to return to the Final Four.

But Ryan isn't big on dwelling on past performances. That's not how they do things in Chester.