Why Bo Ryan Chose Now To Step Down

The Wisconsin Badger basketball team beat Texas A&M-Corpus Christi last night 64-49 and fans walked out of the Kohl Center with hope that this young team could find itself by the time Big Ten play begins in two weeks. By the postgame press conference, their coach had retired. Bo Ryan made his rumored retirement effective immediately.

Ryan’s retirement per se is not surprising, given that at the start of the year he first announced that this would be his last season, than pulled back and said maybe not. I live in Wisconsin and am wondering if there’s something in the air here that causes this sort of thing. First Brett Favre, now this. It begs the question of why Ryan would do this suddenly, to a freshman-laden team in need of his leadership. I believe the answer lies in athletic department politics and a flawed state law.

There’s no question Ryan wants top assistant Greg Gard to be his successor. When the first retirement announcement was made, athletic director Barry Alvarez announced his intention to conduct a nationwide search after the season was over. Even if Alvarez had wanted to hire Gard, the AD is required by Wisconsin law to post the job publicly for 15 days before hiring anyone and it can’t be posted until there is formally a vacancy.

Let’s address the law first—something this stupid and impractical could only be cooked up in academia. Every realistic candidate for the head basketball coaching job is already realistically known to the potential employer. It’s not as though Joe Schmo off the street is going to suddenly apply and have his resume be found compelling.

If the academics who crafted this law feel the same applies to other disciplines, fine, get rid of the law entirely. But it’s useless to an athletic program and would have only served to hurt Wisconsin’s recruiting during a potential lame duck Ryan season.

Now let’s move on to Alvarez’s interest in doing a full-scale national coaching search, which I suspect is an even bigger driving force. Before going on, let me say I don’t have any sources in the athletic department. I’m not going to go all Stephen A. Smith here, dropping names and claiming insider connections. It’s just my theory, but one I believe can be reasonably arrived at.

It’s obvious to anyone who follows Wisconsin sports (and maybe nationally, I don’t know) that Alvarez’s ego is positively gargantuan. It’s no less obvious that Ryan’s ego is considerable, though in comparison to the AD, Bo might as well be St. Therese of Lisieux. This looks to me look two lions circling each other in a cage, ready to wrestle over the future of Wisconsin basketball.

When Alvarez refused to go along with a plan of simply elevating the top assistant, Ryan counters by pulling back his retirement announcement. He then brings it back when there is no other choice but to let Gard coach as an interim for the rest of the season.

Furthermore, the timing is particularly convenient for Gard. The Badgers only play one game between now and the Big Ten opener on December 29, and that’s against UW-Green Bay (although since Wisconsin has already lost to Marquette and UW-Milwaukee maybe I shouldn’t write that so dismissively). Either way, there’s a lot of prep time for Gard. It’s almost as though Ryan decided in advance of the season that last night would be his final game.

I’m a Wisconsin fan and very open to having Gard as the future of the program, although if I’m right—and this is at least reasonable conjecture based on the timing of everything and the public statements already on record from Alvarez and Ryan this past fall—then Gard may need to do something miraculous, like win the Big Ten with a mostly freshman lineup to get a fair shake from the AD. I’m also open to a nationwide search, although if Virginia’s Tony Bennett isn’t available, I’d prefer to keep the hiring in-house.

What I will say is that this kind of power politics should not be as casually accepted in college sports as it’s becoming. Bob Knight is my favorite person all-time in any sport, but he pulled the same stunt in February 2008, when he opened the door for his son Pat at Texas Tech. Now it’s Bo Ryan. Whatever happened to the mantra of “finish the season”, something so many kids and their parents live by when they go out for sports? Apparently the multi-millionaires of college basketball are above it.

That’s my rant. I’ll close on a more upbeat note and it’s the question of where Ryan fits into the pantheon of coaches, Big Ten and nationally. I haven’t had near enough time to research this properly, but if we restrict the conversation to Big Ten coaches in the post-UCLA dynasty era (1976 to the present), I think Ryan ranks third behind Knight and Tom Izzo. Bo’s back-to-back Final Four appearances of the past two years pushed him past Purdue’s Gene Keady, who would be fourth.