Gard him with your life, Wisconsin: Greg should be your permanent head coach

The story of Greg Gard begins with the Bennett family.

In the year 2000, Dick Bennett led Wisconsin to its first Final Four since 1941. Bennett’s relentless emphasis on the basic components of the sport produced teams which were so structurally sound that a lack of jump-through-the-building athleticism didn’t entirely matter.

Yes, Wisconsin would fall short against some elite teams with particularly luminous talents, but the Badgers began to carve out a reputation under Dick Bennett. They became the kind of team which would ambush more physically imposing opponents if those opponents failed to tend to the details of basketball: precise screening, constant cutting, boxing out, and all the rest. If you cut corners and were sloppy in the way you performed on the court, a Dick Bennett team would expose you with the constancy of its effort and concentration.

When Bo Ryan took over for Bennett (who had stepped down the previous season and was replaced by an interim head coach, Brad Soderberg), everyone in Madison hoped the culture Bennett had established would remain very much in place.

As we can easily see with the benefit of hindsight, Ryan affirmed the Dick Bennett blueprint as much as (almost) any man could. That Wisconsin identity — taking advantage of others’ lapses, punishing inattentiveness, and generally maximizing resources but hitting an NCAA tournament ceiling against the likes of Stephen Curry (Davidson, 2008), Shelvin Mack (Butler, 2011), and C.J. Fair (Syracuse, 2012) — stayed intact throughout Ryan’s immensely successful tenure.

Well, to a point.

In 2014, that identity didn’t exactly disappear, but Wisconsin retained everything that was strong about the program while showcasing NBA-level firepower in the persons of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Wisconsin remained patient and disciplined and a mother-trucker to play against, but now with more industrial-strength scoring ability to ward off the droughts which had bitten this team in the backside in so many NCAA tournaments.

With his best rosters at Wisconsin, Ryan took Wisconsin to consecutive Final Fours. Last April, he and his players authored one of the great conquests in the history of the Final Four, the national semifinal upset which ruined Kentucky’s pursuit of a perfect 40-0 season.

In the spring of 2015, Wisconsin basketball — a national runner-up after its loss to Duke in the national title game — enjoyed its highest profile ever. The school won a national title in 1941, but never before had so many Americans been able to witness Wisconsin basketball play at such an elevated height.

By the time 2015 ended, Bo Ryan’s career had ended as well.

Yes, behind the scenes, Ryan wanted to give Greg Gard every reasonable opportunity to become the permanent head coach — a long-term successor, not just an interim one — in Madison. Yet, the uncertainty of the summer and fall, when Ryan showed a measure of indecision in orchestrating his plan, couldn’t have given Gard the easiest flight plan as he tried to take off in his career as a big-time Division I head coach.

Yet, what might have seemed on the surface to be Ryan’s own hesitancy was — at least on some levels — the product of a very sad event.

During the summer of 2015, Greg Gard’s father was in the process of dying from brain cancer. Ryan might have juke-stepped in public in terms of outwardly expressing the timing of his exit, but when he stepped down, he revealed that he wanted to hand over his team to Gard during the semester break, in the middle of December. The Gard family was the truly important matter for Ryan, and that decision — to give his assistant coach time to spend with his father before he died on October 30 — affected the way 2015 unfolded for the UW basketball program.

Grief, remembrance, and ongoing medical research in the attempt to combat cancer — these and other weighty tasks are not confined to the space of a few days, weeks or months. A family will continue to honor Glen Gard in numerous ways, handling everything that flows from death on spiritual, psychological and logistical levels. Yet, by the time the semester break arrived, Greg Gard had been able to say goodbye to his father. He’d been able to (at least initially) process an event which requires time and space.

It might not have been a supremely convenient time for Greg Gard to become the head coach of a Big Ten school coming off consecutive Final Four appearances… but it was a better time than any other time in 2015.

The team entrusted to Gard when Ryan stepped aside was struggling.

It wasn’t just that Wisconsin was 7-5 through 12 games when Gard became the unquestioned leader of his program. The Badgers’ losses were mostly discouraging ones. Losses to Oklahoma and Georgetown? No big deal. However, losses to Western Illinois, Milwaukee, and a Marquette team which was down in the dumps a season ago all sounded alarm bells in Madison.

These Badgers certainly weren’t expected to match the standards set by the Kaminsky-and-Dekker teams of the previous two seasons, but it certainly seemed possible that the 2015-2016 season — which had so many perfectly understandable reasons to fall off a cliff — would become a lost campaign.

It happens — even to great coaches. (We discussed this in a recent piece on Thad Matta, a Big Ten neighbor at Ohio State.) If ever a fan base could tolerate one aberrationally bad season, Wisconsin backers could accept a 2016 which went off the rails. No one would blame Greg Gard.

The problem: He was coaching for his job.

The main plot complication: the Bennett family, the origin point of our story.

Tony Bennett followed in his father’s footsteps as a highly accomplished coach. Taking Washington State to the Sweet 16 and then rebuilding Virginia into a national power have established Dick Bennett’s son as a star in the coaching ranks. If Wisconsin sought a permanent replacement for Bo Ryan, Bennett was the natural choice. Ryan might have wanted Gard to be the guy, but his trusted assistant needed to save this season.

He might not have been given a “next season” if he fell short.

Well, you know the rest. After Wednesday night’s vintage defensive performance against the Iowa Hawkeyes on the road, the Badgers are almost certain to make the NCAA tournament. They just need to avoid the mother of all horrible losses against Minnesota, and they’ll be a lock for the Dance party.

How excellent were the Badgers on defense against the slumping Hawkeyes? They held Iowa to eight points in the final 10:20 of regulation. Dick Bennett, Tony Bennett, and Bo Ryan couldn’t have orchestrated a more convincing statement in a high-stakes late-February road game against a team which will probably be a top-three seed in the NCAAs.

Greg Gard — walking in the valley of the shadow of death with his father — has turned a lost team into an NCAA team after replacing a coaching icon.

There is no long speech to be made. The story you’ve just read is sufficient testimony to Greg Gard’s readiness to be the man in Madison. Resourcefulness, preparedness, professionalism, poise, leadership — all in the face of personal loss and profound situational uncertainty — define a man who has moved mountains in recent months.

There is no need for Barry Alvarez to place a phone call to Tony Bennett.

Greg Gard has Wisconsin singing a full-throated Dance song. He should unquestionably become the permanent head coach of the basketball Badgers. Today wouldn’t be a bad day to make the announcement.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.