College basketball coaches have been known to flip-flop from time to time on employment situations, but the most memorable examples concern coaches who thought about moving from one job to another.
Recall Dana Altman going to Arkansas but then reversing field and retreating to Creighton. Recall Bobby Cremins going to South Carolina but then retracting his decision and staying at Georgia Tech, just over 20 years ago. Recall Billy Donovan going to the Orlando Magic but then reconsidering and returning to Florida just after his second national championship in Gainesville.
Bo Ryan has also flip-flopped — twice, to be precise — but he didn’t leave one program in the lurch. He merely had a hard time deciding when to call it a career.
Now, that moment has fully, firmly and finally arrived.
Ryan, who announced his intention to retire last June but then decided he might coach beyond this season at the University of Wisconsin, changed his mind a second time. This time, it’s for good. Ryan announced his retirement Tuesday night, enabling assistant coach Greg Gard to take over and essentially audition for the permanent job over the remainder of the 2015-2016 season.
Here’s the quick overview of the Wisconsin coaching situation:
Anyways, for Wisconsin, it's 1) Tony Bennett, 2) Ben Jacobson, 3) Gard, in that order. Basically three choices here.
— Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan) December 16, 2015
Ryan, who is fiercely supportive of Gard, wants his guy to get the best possible odds of being retained. If Tony Bennett chooses to leave Virginia and coach where his father — Ryan’s predecessor, Dick Bennett — once worked, Gard will be out of luck. However, if the younger Bennett stays in Charlottesville, Bo Ryan’s succession plan just might become reality, with Ben Jacobson of Northern Iowa being the remaining primary obstacle.
You can see, in Ryan’s decision, a clear attempt to pave the way for his assistant (or facilitate the next coaching search, or both), and to achieve the double-goal of not absorbing a bunch of defeats on the way out the door. In this way, Ryan’s move parallels what happened at the University of South Carolina’s football program with Steve Spurrier a few months ago. Many in the press will lambaste Ryan for quitting on his team in the middle of a season in much the same way they did with Spurrier. It again raises the question of how harmful or valuable it is to quit in sports and in various theaters of activity.
The critics of this decision will certainly use the “Q-word,” but from here, facilitating a transition while also “knowing when it’s time to go” (and not hanging around any longer than necessary) seems enlightened. Greg Gard certainly appreciates the opportunity, and the fact that Ryan retired (before un-retiring) already gave Gard a clear signal that he was going to get a chance to coach this team. Ryan has stepped aside early enough in the season that Gard has a genuine chance to test himself. More specifically, Gard will get to coach a full Big Ten season. That helps Gard…
… and it helps Ryan as well.
Greg Gard gets a chance to prove himself – and the good news is the expectations aren't all that high with Wisconsin's rough start.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) December 16, 2015
With this second (and final) retirement, Ryan ensures that he will not fail to maintain one of the more remarkable streaks in modern-day college basketball. Wisconsin has finished in the top four of the Big Ten in each of Ryan’s 14 seasons on the job in Madison. This season’s team did not appear likely to bump that streak to 15, so Ryan is being a little (over-)protective of his legacy by ducking out now. He is ensuring that he won’t ever have to coach a single game in the opening or second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Some will call that slick or the coward’s way out, much as Spurrier didn’t have to lose games to Tennessee, Florida or Clemson with the Gamecocks this past college football season. That critique will always exist, but this is why helping the school to fill the coaching position should be seen as the greater need and the better measurement of a decision to abruptly quit.
Realize this: Sometimes, coaches quit in ways that catch the school and its administration off guard, creating a major headache for the athletic director. With Spurrier at South Carolina and here with Ryan and Wisconsin, the athletic director has been given a chance to prepare ahead of time and make sure that the permanent hire for the subsequent full season will be a good one. That is helpful to the school in question. This was not what one could call an “inconvenient exit” as far as the university is concerned.
With that point resolved, let’s briefly revisit Ryan’s legacy, which was addressed by many in the college basketball community after his first retirement early last summer.
For many years, Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin teams were badly outgunned in the NCAA tournament, even as a higher seed. The Badgers were a No. 3 seed in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, and yet, they had far less firepower than a No. 10 mid-major in the Sweet 16 that year. The 10 seed: the Davidson Wildcats. The star player on that Davidson team: Stephen Curry. You might have heard of him.
Final score: Davidson 73, Wisconsin 56.
The Badgers, from 2002 through 2013, made the Elite Eight once, and they never reached the Final Four. Ryan passed the 65-year-old mark, and it became a very real possibility that like other great coaches in college basketball history (John Chaney, Gene Keady, Ralph Miller), Bo would never make a Final Four.
In 2014, he made the Final Four.
In 2015, he returned to the Final Four. He won a Final Four game. He coached for a national championship.
Most of all, he scored one of the three or four most significant non-national championship game college basketball victories of the past 25 years, very possibly the biggest, in the victory over Kentucky.
Bo Ryan and Wisconsin weren’t able to achieve what Mike Krzyzewski and Duke were able to do in 1991: Prevent an opponent from registering college basketball’s first unbeaten season since Indiana in 1976… and parlay that win into a national title.
Coach K accomplished both tasks. Ryan and his Badgers “merely” accomplished the first one.
“Merely” never felt so substantial.
— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) December 16, 2015
Wisconsin lost — coincidentally enough — to Coach K and Duke in the 2015 national championship game, but Ryan was able to turn Kentucky’s 38-0 record into 38-1 two days before. He stopped the most serious run at a perfect season since Duke handled UNLV in the 1991 national semifinals in Indianapolis.
Standing at the center of college basketball history; avenging the Final Four loss to Kentucky the year before; and getting his best Wisconsin team to forge a truly special feat all made Ryan’s last full season in Madison a memorable one. In retrospect, this would have been the perfect way for Ryan to exit the stage.
That he’s leaving now, in the midst of uncertainties and losses, should not make history downgrade Ryan’s body of work (or his sense of timing) to the slightest degree.