MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan retired after one last victory with the Badgers on Tuesday night, saying he wanted to step away now to give top assistant Greg Gard the opportunity to prove he is ready to lead the program.
Ryan, who turns 68 on Sunday, said in June this would be his last season, and then left the door open for a return in August. But he said Tuesday night that part of the reason he came back at all was to give Gard time to be with his father, Glen, who was diagnosed with cancer in the spring and passed away this fall.
Ryan said the demands on Gard’s time to fly around the country meeting with doctors and helping his dad put his retirement on the back burner. Following Glen Gard’s death, Ryan then spoke with athletic director Barry Alvarez and decided the semester break would be a good time to step down.
“Every coach would like their top assistant to be the coach,” Ryan said after a 64-49 victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Ryan did not take questions after his announcement, saying he still had not told some staffers because he didn’t want to break the news before the game. He also took longer than normal to come down to the media center after telling his players.
“I can’t put that into words,” Ryan said.
Ryan coached the Badgers to consecutive Final Fours the last two years, including a school-record 36 wins last season and a loss in the national championship to Duke. The Badgers handed Kentucky its first loss of the season in the national semifinals.
Ryan was in his 15th season at Wisconsin and finishes with a school-record 364 wins and seven Big Ten titles. His teams also finished no worse than fourth in conference play each year he was at the helm.
He now turns the program over to Gard, who spent 22 seasons alongside Ryan. He first joined Ryan’s staff at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville and then followed him to Wisconsin-Milwaukee before coming to Madison. He was promoted to associate head coach in July 2008.
Alvarez said he will evaluate how Gard works with the team and then make a decision at the end of the year on what the school wants to do.
“I’ve never had more than a one-year contract in my entire career, so for me it’s never been about the pressure in that way,” said Gard, who recently turned 45. “For me, it’s about putting these young men in the best position to have success as student athletes.”
Gard pledged Ryan won’t “vanish off planet Earth, and I’ll make sure I still have his phone number.”
Gard said it was hard for his mentor to break the news to the team. But Ryan stressed he wasn’t leaving the players after six months, but rather that he got an extra six months with them for staying on this long.
The development with Ryan seemed to take the players by surprise, but forward Nigel Hayes said he noticed something different about the coach before the victory over the Islanders.
Hayes said never makes eye contact with Ryan as the lineup is announced. But Tuesday night he did.
“It was like the saddest look I’ve ever seen him have,” Hayes said. “I guess now it makes sense why he looked like that.”
“We’ve got to remember he’s an old guy,” Hayes also said. “He’s been yelling and screaming for a long time. That takes a toll on your health.”
Ryan’s final game as Wisconsin coach wasn’t a thing of beauty. He built the program on solid defense, smart play and taking care of the basketball.
But the Badgers, coming off consecutive home nonconference losses, missed their first 10 shots and turned the ball over 15 times. Wisconsin (7-5) eventually shook off the slow start and put away Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (7-3) with an 18-6 run in the second half.
Ethan Happ and Bronson Koenig scored 15 points apiece for the Badgers, and Vitto Brown added 12 points and 16 rebounds.
Rashawn Thomas and Hameed Ali scored 12 points apiece for the Islanders.