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Big Thought: Getting to know Greg Gard

It can't be easy. On Tuesday afternoon, you're an assistant coach, going about your responsibilities, scouting, practicing, teaching, recruiting. As far as the outside world is concerned, you operate almost in isolation. Save the unrepresentative subset of college basketball die-hards -- or your team's fans -- no one really knows who you are. Then, on Tuesday night, you're all anyone is talking about.

That would be a weird thing for any assistant coach, or any person, really. It must have been especially strange for Greg Gard. Wisconsin's interim head coach and Bo Ryan's longtime assistant was not, even by the standards of assistant college basketball coaches, a particularly recognizable or well-known figure. Even weirder: Gard wasn't hired, but rather wedged, the result of Ryan's insistence on Gard getting an opportunity to inherit a program in spite of his own athletic director's disagreement.

And so after decades of quiet, behind-the-scenes work, Gard was given a job -- sort of -- and became the new face of Wisconsin basketball -- sort of -- and suddenly people who had never heard the name Greg Gard were talking at length about was whether, and when, that job would no longer be his. Come on: That has to be strange.

Fortunately, Gard doesn't seem like the type to subscribe to his own Google Alerts:

Gard is known more for the mundane notions of loyalty and steadfastness, rather than networking and branding. He has hustled without ever being a hustler, climbed the coaching ladder without being a nomad. From JV coach to Division III student coach all the way to today, he has been steadily upwardly mobile but 23 years ago, he hitched his wagon to Ryan's side, his entire professional career contained on an 85-mile stretch of Highway 151. [...]

Yet asked why Gard can be a successful head coach, friends and colleagues are as apt to discuss his humility and hard work as his intelligence and acumen.

"Substance over style, that's who he is,'' said Ohio University coach Saul Phillips, whose relationship with Gard stretches back to when Phillips was an undergraduate at Wisconsin-Platteville and Gard was a student coach. "You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who has spent time around Greg Gard to say one bad word about him. Go ahead and try. Try to find a Greg Gard enemy. You're not going to find one.''

That's ESPN's Dana O'Neil asking what went mostly unasked in the immediate aftermath of Ryan's decision Tuesday night: Just who is Greg Gard, anyway? And the answer, Dana finds, is the son of Glen and Connie Gard, born and raised on a farm in tiny Cobb, Wisconsin, and a basketball coach almost by accident: As a college sophomore, Gard applied for a junior varsity high school coaching position after being cut from the Wisconsin-Plateville baseball team, and seeing an ad in a local newspaper.

Twenty-three years ago, he began working for Ryan. Like his parents -- who both worked the same jobs (Glen with the state farm credit and loan; Connie at Iowa-Grant High School) for almost all of their adult lives -- and totally unlike most coaching nomads, Gard has been with Ryan's side in Wisconsin for 23 years, "an entire professional career contained on an 85-mile stretch of Highway 151."

Anyone wondering why Ryan would contort the end of his career in such a way -- calling it quits after a random Tuesday night win against Texas A&M Corpus Christi -- would do well to read Dana's piece. The answer is loyalty. Solidity. Reliability.

Gard will have a strange and woolly next three months. He will "audition" for a job that his current boss isn't sure he should have. He will step into a limelight unlike anything he has experienced before. He seems better suited for it than most.

  • Perhaps the best Ryan remembrance came from reigning Wooden Award winner, NBA rookie, and above-average writer Frank Kaminsky, who reflected on his experience with the coach who changed his life: "I’m gonna be completely honest – My first few years with Coach Ryan didn’t go well. I felt like he and I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I was too immature to see how he was becoming one of the most important figures in my development as a player, but more importantly as a man. He was harsh on me. He yelled at me, benched me, told me I looked like I was sleeping all the time, told me to just go sit down during practice, told me I wasn’t allowed to shoot unless there was 5 seconds or less on the shot clock. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what he was doing was getting the most he could out of me. It got to the point where I didn’t want to prove anything to anyone else but him. I stayed after practices and worked on my game. I shot until my arms hurt. I busted my ass in the weight room. All of it to prove to Coach Ryan that I was better than I felt he was giving me credit for."

  • “I might be totally misreading this, but I really like what Bo did. Because I think what Bo did, was [said] ‘OK, I want my assistant to get the job.’ This gives Greg a chance to coach the team, the expectations aren’t going to be Final Four for this team as he coaches it,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “It gives him now – I think they’re done with their nonconference schedule – a chance to put his spin on it before the league starts.”

  • More on Gard's background.

  • "This is my seventh year of writing recaps of Georgetown basketball games, and my capacity for outrage, or rage of any sort, has eroded." Georgetown fans are the best.

  • Every time you think you might be a little tired of Monmouth's bench, they go and do something like this … and totally redeem themselves!