For now until the end of time, the best coach in Wisconsin sports history will be Vince Lombardi. While the only evidence needed to support this claim is the name of the Super Bowl trophy, the five championships in seven seasons is also a solid supporting fact. So who is next in line? With the Wisconsin Badgers‘ victory in the Big Ten Title game earning them a first-ever #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the case for Bo Ryan is as strong as ever.
As great as this season has been for the Badgers, for Ryan it’s really nothing new. During his tenure at UW-Platteville Ryan essentially solved Division-III basketball. While there he won four national titles, had two undefeated seasons, and amassed a 353-76 record. At Wisconsin, Ryan has won 352 games (and counting), a feat which also includes 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, four Big Ten Titles, and three conference tournament titles. Even his “down” years at Wisconsin would be triumphs for half of the Big Ten as his Badgers have never finished worse than 4th in the conference.
Ryan, building on the foundation build by Dick Bennett, turned a historically moribund basketball program into a powerhouse by teaching the Badgers to play his brand of basketball. Unfortunately Ryan’s teams are frequently criticized for being less exciting than a Way and Means Committee hearing on C-Span. This criticism is not without merit as Ryan’s Badgers play at an objectively slow tempo, but it obscures just how good his teams are.
According the college basketball statistics guru Ken Pomeroy, the Badgers are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation. Their median ranking for points per 100 possessions in each of Ryan’s 14 seasons is #25 (out of 351 Division-I teams). The Badgers, by the way, are the most efficient offense in the country this season.
Ryan’s teams are also remarkably good at protecting the ball and defending without fouling. UW frequently leads the nation in fewest turnovers per game (they’re #1 this season) and in Friday’s victory versus Michigan the Badgers only committed five fouls, which is an almost impossible feat.
When you look past the winning percentage and conference titles and NCAA appearances, what truly makes Bo Ryan great is that he developed a winning philosophy and teaches players how to implement it year after year. The consistent excellence from Ryan over the past 31 seasons is is similar to that of Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyewski, Bobby Knight, and Mark Few.
All of this said, Bo Ryan is not without competition for the place immediately behind Lombardi. Al McGuire has a strong case thanks to his 295-80 record and ’77 Championship at Marquette. Mike Holmgren’s tenure in Green Bay netted a Super Bowl victory and springboarded the Packers to where they are today. Similarly, Barry Alvarez won three Rose Bowls at Wisconsin and started the current Golden Age of Badger football.
But what separates Bo Ryan is his longevity. McGuire was at Marquette for 13 seasons, Holmgren coached the Packers for seven seasons, and Alvarez roamed the sidelines for 16 years before becoming at athletic director at UW. In contrast, Ryan has coached a UW basketball program for 31 seasons and may very well be in Madison for the next ten seasons.
Bo Ryan has accomplished just about everything a college basketball coach can accomplish, minus winning the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully that will happen a few weeks from now, but regardless of how Wisconsin’s season ends it will not change Ryan’s status as one of the all-time greats.