ARLINGTON, Texas - Everything's big in Texas, and that includes the sign on the south side of mammoth AT&T Stadium that reads: "The Road ENDS HERE.'' For 66-year-old Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, reaching the Final Four is the ultimate destination in a career that began with a junior high job.
"This is our first time being to this stage of the tournament,'' said Ryan, who has put the Badgers into the NCAA Tournament in each of his 13 seasons as their head coach. "One of the players actually made a comment as we were driving in: 'So, this is the road to the Final Four.' ''
Ryan's team may not be the favorite to win it all, but you can believe he's the sentimental favorite among peers who respect the scope of his accomplishments and the principles he employed every day for 42 years to get here. As subplots go, it's pretty juicy to see the Badgers (30-7) with their veteran lineup and respect for fundamentals matched in one semifinal against the latest "one-and-done'' wonders from John Calipari's Kentucky program.
Sitting on the dais next to Calipari Thursday, the Irish imp in Ryan couldn't resist.
"Well, here's all I've got to say to Cal,'' Ryan began. "When somebody asks me about 'one-and-done,' all I remember is when my mom would give me a pork chop or a piece of meat loaf. I would ask for another piece, and she would say, 'No, one-and-done.' "
Ryan was just warming up. When someone wondered how a national title might go over in Wisconsin, he smiled and said, "I think there would be a little more cheese sold across the country and some other products I probably shouldn't mention that the state of Wisconsin is known for.''
You know, the adult beverage that made Milwaukee famous.
Of course, proof of how much this moment means to Ryan came after his victory over Arizona for the West Regional title. He choked up thinking of his father, Butch, his first coach, who died last August at the age of 89 before he could share this moment. Ryan spoke, too, about great former coaches he admired, such as Iowa's Tom Davis and Purdue's Gene Keady (now an adviser at St. John's), who never made it this far.
"I got into the profession as a teacher first in junior high school,'' Ryan said, "and then, they gave me a coaching job.''
That was in Delaware County near his Chester, Pa., home in 1972. Four years later, he landed an assistant's job at Wisconsin. In 1984, he took his first head job at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, where he stayed 15 years, winning four national championships.
It's a picture-perfect farm town about 200 miles northwest of Chicago, where the Bears used to hold training camp. Ryan had offers, but he was having too much fun to leave.
"It was totally different than anything I'd been used to,'' Ryan said. "I just had a great time raising a family and coaching and teaching. I also taught classes. I really enjoyed it.''
Then, Nancy Zimpher, who was president of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now is chancellor of the SUNY system, persuaded him to take his first D-I head job. That lasted two years before Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter offered the Badgers' job.
Recounting the phone call, Ryan said, "He goes, 'Are you ready?' I said, 'You know I'm ready.' ''
Now, Ryan and his Badgers have reached the end of a long, gratifying journey. "It would be so exciting if we were to be the last team standing,'' Ryan said. "I would just stand back and look at those guys and just smile inside and outside.''