Ryan winning despite missing piece
Wisconsin's Bo Ryan is learning how to coach in first season without his father
MADISON, Wis. -- Bo Ryan's spacious office doubles as a museum for Wisconsin basketball junkies.
Glistening framed photos of notable Badgers line the walls. A vintage image of a Wisconsin player -- his legs covered in thick knee braces -- painted onto the post of an old crate basket is positioned near his mahogany desk.
And then there's the real prize for the coach who leads the unblemished, third-ranked Wisconsin squad (16-0) that will face Indiana in Bloomington on Tuesday night on ESPN.
Beneath a lamp, a collection of pictures featuring Ryan with his grandkids -- the children who've triggered a softness that has surprised his adult children -- shines as bright as the place they've occupied in his life.
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A whistle swings from that light -- basketball is the fabric of the Ryan family, of course -- but it's an afterthought compared with the photos of the 66-year-old with the wide smile next to those vibrant kids.
Those boys and girls grabbed "BeePa's" heart the day they were born, and they've never let go.
That's why he frequently schedules time to finish crossword puzzles with 5-year-old Aoife. And that's why the man known for his gruff demeanor doesn't fuss when his other grandkids run onto the court in the middle of team drills.
Maybe he's different now.
Ryan's family has always been his priority. But those around him wonder whether losing his father, William "Butch" Ryan, in August changed him, perhaps made him value everything a bit more than he did before Butch died.
As he settles into his office the night before a major Big Ten matchup against Iowa, Bo Ryan mentions his dad without prompting.
He'd love to bring his father to Arlington, Texas, in April. Butch and Bo were always a popular duo at the Final Four.
He'd love to tell his father about this group of young men who might constitute his most capable and solidified Badgers team.
He'd love to call his father and talk hoops, just one more time.
He wishes Butch Ryan could see this.
"I think basketball season makes it extra tough," said Megan Kaiser, Ryan's daughter. "They would call after every game just to talk a little bit about it. I think there are some phone calls being missed."
Butch might be gone.
But the man who runs Wisconsin basketball is everything the World War II veteran thought he'd be and more. Bo Ryan's success -- and Wisconsin's, too -- is an extension of his father's legacy.
It's too quiet.
Squeaking sneakers and balls bouncing off backboards should not be the only sounds when young men gather to play basketball, especially on a team facing the growing pressure of being an undefeated program atop the Big Ten.
But it's relatively silent at the Wisconsin practice facility adjacent to the Kohl Center in Madison.
The assembly-line approach makes this feel more like a marching band's pregame prep for a bowl game, not a Division I basketball practice the evening before a contentious outing against a stacked, nationally ranked Iowa squad.
The Badgers should carry briefcases, not gym bags.
They are, however, relentless in their meticulousness.
When the systematic session begins, players walk onto the floor and maneuver through a series of fundamental drills.
Passing. Shooting. Dribbling. More passing. More dribbling. More shooting.
They do the same things. Again. And again. And again.
Without making a lot of noise.
"I noticed that, too, when I was here on my official visit," junior Traevon Jackson said. "Like 'Why is it so quiet?' It's actually gotten louder this year than ever. We know what it is that we need to do. Coach runs his program that way."
Every Wisconsin practice is an infomercial for basketball's basics.
And players don't scream at one another while they execute.
They occasionally argue. Kind of.
Jackson talks to freshman Jordan Hill about his assignment as they work on defense. But Hill objects to Jackson's tone, so he reminds him, with a politician's delivery, that "I'm on this team, too." Jackson nods.
Shouting match avoided.
"In the locker room, we all just get along so well," junior Josh Gasser said. "We have great team chemistry. Everyone on the court is just doing their job. Everyone is doing what they're asked. They're buying into their roles."
On the baseline, Ryan folds his arms and focuses on the action.
He's so animated when he's challenging officials from the sideline. He's so explosive when he questions calls. But in practice, he just stands there and whistles.
That swift sound alerts the Badgers that it's time for the next drill.
Chest passes, whistle. Defensive run-throughs, whistle. Layups, whistle.
Ryan speaks only when necessary. The culture of personal accountability and self-discipline has contributed to his collective achievements throughout his career.
The Badgers have never missed the NCAA tournament in his tenure, which began with the 2001-02 season. They've never finished below fourth in the Big Ten, either.
Ryan expects his players to police themselves and fix their individual kinks because they desire perfection, not because he constantly demands it.
So, he doesn't have to yell. The Badgers know the standard.
He employed the same principles when he was at UW-Platteville, where he won four Division III national championships, and at UW-Milwaukee, where he took an eight-win program and nearly doubled that tally the year he arrived.
"Coach doesn't have a lot of rules," said Joe Robinson, Ryan's former director of basketball operations at Wisconsin. "He's never had a curfew. He doesn't make a whole lot of team rules. There's no list of rules when they walk into the room. The fact that he gives them freedom and gives them trust, they don't really screw up very much."
Butch Ryan had the same effect on young men.
By day, he was a pipe fitter. But after work, Ryan said, he'd "grab a few slices of cheese" and go to the baseball diamond, football field or basketball courts near their hometown of Chester, Pa.
The mothers in the neighborhood always wanted their children to play for Butch Ryan because they came home tougher and more disciplined. Bo Ryan, who played multiple youth sports on his father's teams, did, too.
If they didn't get it right, they'd do it again.
"He was pretty serious, but a fun guy," Ryan said. "He could tell jokes with the best of them. He was always direct. There was never a question of what it was you were expected to do. People like that. Maybe more than some people realize. Kids are looking for direction, and he would give them that."
In Aston, Pa., Butch Ryan created a youth football organization that recently honored him by naming its new turf "Butch Ryan Field." That program, however, didn't get off to the best start when it convened in the 1950s. The day of the first football practice, Butch Ryan realized the kids might not have the proper equipment.
"[One] guy had his dad's hard hat from work," Ryan said. "You know those hard hats that you see those people wear when they're doing construction? Another kid had a leather helmet. 'My grandfather wore this.' He brings a leather helmet. We were dying. [Another] guy had a motorcycle helmet."
But Butch Ryan would make sure the kids had what they needed.
When the fields needed some enhancements, he found fencing. "Don't ever ask me where I got it," he always told his only son. When a family needed help with medical bills or food, Butch Ryan would buy bottles of beer from nearby pubs and put them in gift baskets for a raffle. Once the money had been collected, he'd give the cash to the family.
"I think with the passing of my grandpa, it's definitely helped [Ryan] maybe take a step back and realize all the good my grandpa did and all the relationships he formed and the imprint he had on so many kids' lives," said Will Ryan, one of Bo Ryan's sons and an assistant at North Dakota State.
Butch Ryan also had a humorous side, vividly recalled by those who came across him at the Final Four, an event Bo Ryan has attended with his father since the 1970s.
There was the night he had a dance contest with then-rap star MC Hammer in a hotel lobby. Or that time he fell off the team bus.
"Everybody kind of gasped," Robinson said. "He jumps up and looks in and says, 'Don't worry, I'm fine. I won World War II.'"
There were also those moments when he would abruptly end the silence in one of his son's practices.
"I don't remember who was shooting a free throw, but all of a sudden he gets right behind one of our players and shouts at the top of his lungs," said Tanner Bronson, a former Badgers guard and current Saint Louis assistant. "It just scared the players."
Bo Ryan cracks a lot of jokes, too.
His sense of humor is often hidden, however, when he's hollering at an official.
His father wasn't a comedian when it was time to work, either.
And work, with Ryan, has always been the emphasis.
Wisconsin, under Ryan, has been criticized for its style. The Badgers have been defensive forces in recent years. But they've never possessed the nation's flashiest offense (ninth in the Big Ten last season at 60.9 PPG).
This season, however, the Badgers boast the Big Ten's top scoring offense (82.0 PPG) through three games and are averaging just 9.4 turnovers per contest. It's early, but there's clearly a difference with this season's Badgers.
And it's no secret to Ryan. He has talent that has allowed him to spice up his offense. Sam Dekker is a sophomore who could make millions in a few months if he decides to enter the NBA draft. Frank Kaminsky (47.7 percent from the 3-point line) is a 7-foot problem for the Big Ten who's just as comfortable outside the arc as he is inside it. Ben Brust has made 44 percent of his 3-pointers. Jackson is a blue-collar point guard who starts for the Badgers even though most Division I programs refused to offer him a scholarship.
Freshman Bronson Koenig is a special young guard. First-year freight train Nigel Hayes (6-7, 250 pounds) probably ruined some coach's dream when he chose basketball over football. Gasser is strong again after a serious knee injury.
This is not a roster full of lottery picks. And those close to Ryan say he takes pride in his ability to mold players who come to Madison with few stars attached to their names.
"If you're at certain schools and you know you can go out and pick whoever you want every year, that's a little different," Ryan said. "We see guys we know we won't be using for two years. Some of these schools get guys they know they're playing right away. Can't-miss guys. How many can't-miss guys have we had? I'd like to get more, but hey, I like developing players."
This season, he has talented veterans and contributing freshmen, a rare combination that most coaches desire.
It's all there for Ryan and Wisconsin. Every piece he needs to do what he has never done -- reach the Final Four and compete for a national championship.
It's the only accomplishment missing from his résumé.
Whether he admits it or not, Ryan recognizes the potential of this current group. He knows what he has and what this crew can do in the coming months.
But there's also something -- someone -- missing from this journey.
"What's really tough is when December, January come," said Bo Ryan, who lost his mother, Louise, seven months before his father's death. "The holidays and then the new year. You're always so used to that phone call or them visiting. So yeah, it's been ... "
Somewhere, Butch Ryan is watching, quietly. And smiling.
At this point in his son's career, he doesn't have to say a word.
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