Wisconsin's Ryan enters season amid uncertain future

Courtesy of Wisconsin Athletics

MADISON, Wis. -- The news that rocked Wisconsin's basketball program arrived swiftly in the form of a two-paragraph, 129-word statement issued June 29. Several players were lounging in their on-campus apartments, scrolling through Twitter when they saw the blip explode across their timeline: Bo Ryan, their beloved and fiery coach, said he was planning to retire after one more season with the team.

Bombshell dropped.

"We were like, 'Oh boy, this is about to blow up,' " Badgers guard Zak Showalter recalled.

In the offices of the Kohl Center, the team's three assistant coaches all had an inkling this decision was coming. After guiding the Badgers to consecutive Final Four appearances, including their first national championship game in 74 years, the demand on Ryan's time for clinics and speaking engagements was at an exhausting and unfathomable high. He had just coached perhaps the best Wisconsin team ever assembled, and the program's foundation was long since set. So, the 67-year-old Ryan issued the release that noted his hope was for longtime assistant Greg Gard to eventually become the head coach.

Back in the dorms, players were texting coaches for confirmation, clicking on news stories, texting one another and talking to family members. Despite staring at the words plainly in front of their faces, an overwhelming feeling of skepticism emerged, either rooted in denial or full-on doubt.

"I thought it was a joke because I don't know what else he would do with his life besides coach basketball," said forward Nigel Hayes, a preseason All-American candidate.

"Even after reading it, and so many guys talking about it, I was like I don't think he's leaving," forward Vitto Brown said. "I think this is just a media ploy or whatever. I feel like if he was leaving, we would've had a sense of it before the announcement. And I didn't."

If Ryan had said no more, that disbelief would have softened. Players, fans and opposing schools would have prepared for one final run, one last well-deserved send-off of a man who changed the Badgers' fortunes in ways few could have imagined 15 seasons ago.

Instead, Ryan mentioned six weeks later at a charity golf event appearance that he could change his mind and "might stay for another four or five" years. He had unofficially left the door open to a possible return, a stance that hasn't changed since leaving everyone to wonder about the future. Nebraska coach Tim Miles even suggested at Big Ten media day that it was "the biggest cliffhanger since 'Who Shot J.R.?' "

That is the limbo in which the Badgers' basketball program now lives. Wisconsin enters a strange new world this season, having lost five of its top seven rotation players from a team that finished 36-4 and lost to Duke in the national title game. Only four players on the current roster saw meaningful minutes last season, and at least three freshmen are expected to play. It is a world filled with uncertainty. And the on-court product isn't even the half of it.

Practices have begun. The season opens in early November. Still, the question lingers: Will Ryan return?

"Maybe his opinion will change," assistant coach Gary Close said. "We'll have to wait and see."

Said Brown: "Coach Ryan is an enigma sometimes. Obviously he put it out there, so it may come within the next few years maybe. But with Coach Ryan, you never really know."

A man is allowed to change his mind, of course. And if anyone has earned the right in college basketball circles to decide his own future, it is Ryan. In his 14 seasons at Wisconsin, the Badgers have reached the NCAA tournament every year. He's the winningest coach in program history with a 357-125 record, and he has been named the Big Ten coach of the year four times.

Nobody is pushing Ryan out the door. Athletics director Barry Alvarez, in fact, has been quite supportive of Ryan in whatever decision he makes. When Alvarez coached Wisconsin's football team, he announced his retirement before his final season in 2005 and handpicked defensive coordinator Bret Bielema to be his successor as coach.

Yet it is Ryan's noncommittal approach that has created such intrigue -- point guard Bronson Koenig said "no one really knows" what he's thinking. Perhaps he really isn't done. Or perhaps he's still searching for ways to guarantee Gard will be his successor, as Bielema was for Alvarez. Alvarez has said he would offer no such assurances and would instead make the search for the next coach a nationwide endeavor.

Either way, Ryan -- ever the tough, stubborn competitor -- intends on doing this his way. But the entire episode has the potential to take away from the one area Ryan can immediately control: his team. Players and recruits are unsure what will happen, and off-court distractions are met at every turn.

Showalter, a fourth-year junior, compared how he feels to a now-famous Democratic Presidential Debate moment in which Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told Hillary Clinton the American people were "sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails."

"Did you see that?" Showalter said. "Everywhere I've gone this whole summer, state fair, everywhere I've gone, that's all people want to know about. It's not my decision. I don't have any more insight than you do."

Ryan would rather discuss the development of his players in the weeks before the season. But as much as he and his staff would prefer to deflect attention from the decision, it seems unlikely that inquiries will stop until a definitive stance is taken.

"It's one of the only professions in America, or anywhere for that matter, that when you turn 67 and you think about retiring, someone's going to ask a question about it," Wisconsin assistant coach Lamont Paris said.

Ryan, meanwhile, is doing his best to remain singularly focused on preparing for the season. Ask a question about his future, get an open-ended answer.

"The world is not a stable place," Ryan said. "There are no guarantees out there. For me to even take two seconds to think about later just takes away from the job I can do with these young men. I'm in that gym with them to teach them the game of basketball, how to play together, how to work off one another and do the same thing I've been doing for 40-some years. So that's all I think about."

Ryan has created an art form around the concept of developing less-heralded players into overachievers. He has met every challenge head-on and excelled. Take his days guiding Sun Valley High School to its first Pennsylvania state tournament appearance in 1976. Or the time he took a small Division III school in Platteville, Wisconsin, to win four national championships. He also led Wisconsin-Milwaukee to consecutive winning seasons for the first time in eight years.

This year's team, however, will be among his greatest challenges and certainly represents one of the more significant rebuilding jobs he has seen in some time.

With Hayes and Koenig at the helm, Wisconsin is ranked No. 17 in the preseason coaches poll, though the ranking surely is based in part on past success. Showalter and Brown are the only other players who appeared in more than 15 games last season. National player of the year Frank Kaminsky is gone, as is Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson, Duje Dukan and Sam Dekker, who left a year early for the NBA.

Wisconsin returns only 38.1 percent of its minutes, the lowest total since Ryan inherited a group returning 30.0 percent of its minutes in his first season with the Badgers in 2001-02. Wisconsin also brings back only 34.3 percent of its points and 39.4 percent of its rebounds.

The team, which includes five true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen, is so green that executing simple drills has been a chore. Gard said the early portions of practice have required "elementary level teaching" on ball faking, defensive positioning and passing.

"If you could've seen the full-court passing and the drills that we've been doing forever, wow," Ryan said. "The first day we did them, I think we have them on film. Maybe not. Maybe we destroyed it. I was afraid somebody was going to get hurt.

"There was a lot of teaching going on. More teaching than ever. I can't remember having that many flaws that we had to correct than what we did when we did our passing drills. And that's just the start."

Ryan's task is difficult. Yet he remains completely at ease and in his element. During a recent practice, Ryan stood on the sideline, arms folded across his black Wisconsin warm-up jacket, staring intently at the action on the floor. Nearly every half-court possession presented an opportunity for him to share the expertise and passion he has demonstrated for 40 years.

"How does he get away with putting that dribble on the floor without doing what we did in that drill?" Ryan asked incredulously to freshman forward Charlie Thomas. "Charlie, you do not need to dribble. You could pivot with the basketball and move rather than dribble there."

Later, when freshman guard Khalil Iverson lost track of his defensive assignment, Ryan stopped practice again.

"Khalil, drop," he said. "You were like this, then he threw it out. You had to turn around. That's one extra step that you lose. Do you know what I'm talking about? You've got to relocate."

The tone at practice looked every bit the same as it has in any other season. Players and coaches say if Ryan had never made any announcement back in June, there would be no indication anything was different. He is still teaching, still molding young men to give them the best experience of their college basketball career.

There is no question Ryan will be right at home for the next five months. The question, really, is what comes next? And while speculation runs rampant, only Ryan will be able to provide an answer, whenever he's ready.

"My gut is he'll be around because there's nothing else he has to do with his life," Hayes said. "Maybe his wife and Bo, maybe they'll ride off into the sunset and travel the world. But I don't think he's done coaching, yelling at players, winning. I think he just has too much of a competitive fire left in him to walk away from it."