Originally Published: June 26, 2014

Top 50 coaches: No. 7 Bo Ryan

By ESPN.com

Bo RyanHarry How/Getty ImagesBo Ryan followed an unlikely path to the elite level of college basketball coaches.

Editor's note: Over 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.


So here's the thing: There are good coaches everywhere. If you grew up in a place that even nominally cares about basketball -- or maybe even if you didn't -- you almost certainly know of at least one great coach the wider world has never heard of.

You know the type. The high school icon fourth-graders see as a towering hero. The relentless, 30-year NAIA veteran whose camps you used to attend. The Division III coach, once a rising young star, who found a home on the outskirts of college basketball and never left. The guy who coached Larry Bird to the 1979 national title game and then spent his life teaching high school history.

College basketball coaches -- particularly in Division I -- love to talk about these guys. It's a general understanding that there are talented, impactful coaches at all levels of the sport. Consistent, respected, dogged. Grinders. There but for the grace of God. We fans simply don't have the bandwidth to appreciate them all.

In another life, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan might have been one of those guys. Actually, in many ways, he still is.

Ryan began his college head-coaching career at Wisconsin-Platteville in 1984. Ryan was an assistant at Wisconsin for eight seasons beforehand, from 1976 to 1984, gradually assembling the philosophies that would guide him when he returned to Madison two decades later. But at Platteville, he had all the makings of the Grinder. UW-Platteville was an NAIA school when Ryan was hired, and the path from NAIA to the Big Ten is almost nonexistent. When NAIA coaches are really good, they tend to stay in one place.

And Ryan was really good. By his fourth season, he had totally turned Platteville around. By his seventh, in 1990-91, Pioneers athletics jumped from NAIA to Division III, and Ryan led Platteville to a 28-3 record and a national championship. He never had a bad season at the school again. His season high for losses? Five. He won three more national titles, two of which ended in undefeated seasons.

Ryan
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesWisconsin has risen to great heights under head coach Bo Ryan.

After 353 wins and 76 losses, UW-Milwaukee came calling. The stop would be short. After two seasons, Ryan was hired at the University of Wisconsin.

It's worth noting how unlikely this path really is, especially now. Young coaches don't go to the NAIA to work their way up anymore, if they ever did in the first place. They get in as graduate staffers. They eat tape for years. They grind as medium-profile assistants, hop from place to place, hire agents, fret over the appearance of lateral moves. Ryan's rise, extended as it was, was unlikely even then.

Since he got to Wisconsin, Ryan has been almost laughably good. It's a matter of habit, writing about the guy, to run through the sheer consistency with which Ryan has operated, so let's do that now: Since 2001-02, his first season with the Badgers, he has never missed the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin was a double-digit seed just once. His teams have never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten.

The how of these results was always the same, too: Ryan deftly recruited players who fit his personality and his playing style, happily steering clear of the high-stakes, elite recruiting circuit. Instead, he found likely four-year players with very specific skills: physical, turnover-averse guards, big guys with perimeter skills, wings who could play anywhere. And then he took those players and assembled them, year over year, into his homemade swing offense. The Badgers worked possessions over, defended without fouling, rebounded their own glass and won games like clockwork.

Somewhere along the way, Ryan somehow managed to be both a head coach at a huge, consistently successful Big Ten school and an underappreciated grinder. His teams were always solid but never great. Their style, or arguable lack thereof, rubbed aesthetes the wrong way. Their tick-tock consistency extended to the way their seasons typically finished: in the second round of the tournament, or maybe the Sweet Sixteen.

And then, last season, Wisconsin finally broke through.

After a five-season stretch averaging some of the slowest basketball in all of Division I, the 2013-14 Wisconsin Badgers picked up the pace. They averaged nearly 64 possessions per game, adjusted, which for them was practically light speed. Frank Kaminsky, a little-used sub for two years, morphed into an unstoppable inside-out threat. Sophomore Sam Dekker, the rare top 20 recruit when he arrived, provided athleticism and scoring edge. The Badgers averaged 1.21 points per possession (adjusted), fourth in the country. They played, and handled, one of the tougher nonconference schedules in the country. But for two weeks in late January, when they lost five out of six, they were 25-3.

And most of all, they went to the Final Four. That was the one knock on Ryan's tenure: He had never been to the Final Four. He just didn't have the talent. So much for that. In March, Wisconsin beat Oregon, Baylor and Arizona en route to AT&T Stadium. Once there, they matched up with red-hot Kentucky, and they would have -- maybe should have -- won, if not for another crazy, Aaron Harrison last-second shot.

As devastating as that loss was, Wisconsin entered this offseason knowing that nearly everyone will return for next season: Kaminsky, Dekker, guard Josh Gasser, supremely promising forward Nigel Hayes, etc. They are a top-five team entering next season, a program fully liberated from the respectable but restrained niche it spent the past decade inhabiting.

It was no surprise, then, that Ryan ranked so high in our ESPN Forecast top 50 voting. Everyone has always kind of known Ryan was a great coach and a man fully comfortable with his homegrown success. But the consistency, the grind, the lack of deep tournament exposure, occasionally made people take his work for granted. It would have been impossible to see him this high on this list two or three years ago.

Even at a school like Wisconsin, Ryan was less-high-profile Division 1 coach than respected, underrated pillar of the sport -- the kind of guy other coaches reference when they're driving home that old point.

It took last season's flash of brilliance to remind everyone of what they already knew: Ryan is as good as any coach in the country. At any level.

-- Eamonn Brennan


Previous: Nos. 50-25 » No. 24: McKillop » No. 23: McDermott » No. 22: Amaker »
No. 21: Brown » No. 20: Matta » No. 19: Wright » No. 18: Fisher » No. 17: Few »
No. 16: Williams » No. 15: Hoiberg » No. 14: Bennett » No. 13: Smart »
No. 12: Boeheim » No. 11: Miller » No. 10: Ollie » No. 9: Beilein » No. 8: Marshall »

Full Top 50 Coaches List

No. 50: Tie -- Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's; Scott Drew, Baylor

No. 49: Richard Pitino, Minnesota

No. 48: Stew Morrill, Utah State

No. 47: Bob Hoffman, Mercer

No. 46: John Thompson III, Georgetown

No. 45: Mike Brey, Notre Dame

No. 44: Rick Barnes, Texas

No. 43: Chris Mack, Xavier

No. 42: Josh Pastner, Memphis

No. 41: Ed Cooley, Providence

No. 40: Bruce Weber, Kansas State

No. 39: Tubby Smith, Texas Tech

No. 38: Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech

No. 37: Rick Byrd, Belmont

No. 36: Steve Alford, UCLA

No. 35: Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's

No. 34: Tad Boyle, Colorado

No. 33: Fran McCaffery, Iowa

No. 32: Tim Miles, Nebraska

No. 31: Lon Kruger, Oklahoma

No. 30: Bob Huggins, West Virginia

No. 29: Jim Crews, Saint Louis

No. 28: Jim Larranaga, Miami

No. 27: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati

No. 26: Archie Miller, Dayton

No. 25: Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh

No. 24: Bob McKillop, Davidson

No. 23: Greg McDermott, Creighton

No. 22: Tommy Amaker, Harvard

No. 21: Larry Brown, SMU

No. 20: Thad Matta, Ohio State

No. 19: Jay Wright, Villanova

No. 18: Steve Fisher, San Diego State

No. 17: Mark Few, Gonzaga

No. 16: Roy Williams, North Carolina

No. 15: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State

No. 14: Tony Bennett, Virginia

No. 13: Shaka Smart, VCU

No. 12: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse

No. 11: Sean Miller, Arizona

No. 10: Kevin Ollie, UConn

No. 9: John Beilein, Michigan

No. 8: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State

No. 7: Bo Ryan, Wisconsin

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