When Bo Ryan announced his retirement I was as surprised as everyone. I watched his last game (and win) on television and there was no indication of the impending announcement during that game. Exactly one week before the announcement I had been invited to watch a Badger basketball practice at the Kohl Center the night before their game against UW-Milwaukee. The practice was followed by a brief meet and greet/question and answer session with the coach, so I got to see him up close for the first time and came away deeply impressed–but not because of his basketball expertise.
I have always admired Bo Ryan as a coach. I watched his UW-Platteville Pioneers when I lived there. In his tenure at Platteville his teams won four national championships. He then moved to UW-Milwaukee where he turned the Panthers into contenders. His last fourteen years were spent at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he finished his career with the highest winning percentage in Big Ten conference history. He really was one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.
But you could also tell that Ryan was a down-to-earth good guy. He had a great sense of humor during interviews and he just seemed like he cared deeply about his young players and their success–not only in basketball, but in life. While winning was clearly important to him you never felt that winning was the only thing or everything.
The question and answer session I got to attend showed me the human side of Bo Ryan that I had always felt. He answered questions about basketball that day, but that is not what impressed me. He was upbeat, generous with his time, and came across as very human. The first question that was asked of him was, “What do you want for Christmas?” I expect that the questioner thought he would answer a Big Ten or national championship.
Instead he took a deep breath and said something along the lines of, “I don’t really think about it in that way, what I want. That’s not what it’s about.” He then got very real and went on to talk about growing up in a poor family in Pennsylvania and described how when he was a child they didn’t have much and they were lucky if they got one or two small presents at Christmas. He said that he passed that on to his children, that they would get a couple things for the holiday but that he didn’t want them to feel privileged or that the world owed them something.
A little later in the program a man asked a question and then told Ryan that he had gone to a Bo Ryan basketball camp a couple summers when he was a youngster. The man turned out to be Lawrence Petty, the son of former basketball player Larry Petty who was with the Badgers when Ryan was an assistant coach in the late 70s. Larry Petty has been homeless and in and out of prison since his playing days ended. When Ryan realized that the man was Larry Petty, Jr. his eyes lit up and he went over and gave him a big hug.
These are the two moments that stand out to me from my brief time with Bo Ryan–two small moments that showed a man of deep reflection, compassion, and caring. Not everyone can coach, but any coach can teach the basics of a game and diagram plays. Not every coach can bring the intangibles. Not every coach can live life in such a way that their players learn how to be decent human beings by the example. I believe Coach Ryan was one of the rare ones who could win on the court while also winning in the game of life. This is what I saw a week before his retirement and this is what Wisconsin basketball will miss most about Bo Ryan.