The Wisconsin Badgers moved into the Associated Press Top 25 this week.
Of course, they did.
I mean, that's what the Wisconsin Badgers do. Every season. And that's not hyperbole. The last time they weren't ranked at some point between November and April was the 2001-02 season, otherwise known as Bo Ryan's first year at the school. Still, Wisconsin finished tied for first in the Big Ten that season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. They've consistently been good/great ever since.
|Bo Ryan uses every opportunity to teach his players. (Getty Images)|
• Wisconsin has made the NCAA tournament in each of Ryan's eight seasons.
• Wisconsin has won three Big Ten regular-season titles and two tournament titles under Ryan. Those five titles are the most in the league over that span.
• Ryan has the best winning percentage in Big Ten history. (Bob Knight is second.)
• Wisconsin has the nation's fourth-best home record in Ryan's tenure.
• Wisconsin has never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten under Ryan.
It is those facts -- combined with Wisconsin's 73-69 win over Duke last week -- that made me make a promise to myself, my readers and Wisconsin fans in general. It read: "I, Gary Parrish, swear on everything I own -- including my iPod, portable GPS and hundreds of thousands of Marriot points -- that I will never leave Wisconsin unranked in the preseason as long as Bo Ryan is coaching with his NCAA tournament streak intact. It'll never happen again. Never. Ever. There's no sense in annually being wrong about the same thing."
"Your comments are funnier than hell," Ryan said Monday by phone, and I told him I appreciated him saying that. But I also reminded him that I was dead serious, that I didn't care if all his players were beaten by their girlfriends with a golf club next October and thus sidelined four to six weeks, I was still ranking the Badgers in the preseason Top 25 (and one) under the assumption he would just figure something out.
Like he always does.
And it was on this note that I asked Ryan how he feels when people make comments like the ones I made, when people toss around words like "brilliant" and "genius" and "master" to describe him as a coach. It's meant as a compliment, obviously. But what people are really saying when they use those words is that they can't believe Ryan is winning big at this level with relatively average athletes.
Lately, people use those same words to describe Maryland's Gary Williams.
They talk about how he has been "doing more with less."
They talk about how he's a great "coach."
"Gary and I were talking over in Maui [last month at the Maui Invitational], and he says to me, 'You know ... we're kind of a different breed. We're kind of a dying breed in that absolutely, positively for sure, when we got into coaching in the late '60s/early '70s, it for sure wasn't for the money,'" Ryan said. "It's not that wanting to get a good paycheck is wrong. It's just that a lot of people are getting into coaching now thinking 'Look how much money I can make.' And as I walked away from Gary I thought, 'Well that's the only thing that saved a guy like me in this profession, is getting into it as a teacher in the classroom and on the court in junior high and high school."
I found that story interesting.
Because one thing Ryan and Williams have in common -- besides birthdays in the 1940s -- is that they both began their celebrated careers as high school coaches, then worked their way up. In other words, they started their professions truly as teachers -- teachers of curriculum and basketball -- as opposed to recruiters or handlers. These days -- and I suspect this'll still somehow be the case even with new NCAA regulations -- the best way to break into college coaching is by connecting yourself to a prospect or many prospects, and the best way to advance up the coaching ladder is to carve out an identity as one of the nation's great recruiters. Few athletic directors are looking for great basketball minds. They're looking for great recruiters who can be the face of program, somebody who can get players and motivate boosters with public appearances.
Actually coaching basketball?
That's about 10 percent of the job at the high-major level.
And though I don't want to suggest being a good "coach" isn't important, what I am suggesting is that it's not nearly the prerequisite it was to being a college coach when Ryan and Williams decided they wanted to try to do this for a living. Back then, you might spend a Wednesday night chatting motion offense with a group at a bar, bouncing coaching ideas off each other. In 2009, an aspiring coach is more likely to spend a night at a bar with some prospect's summer coach, bouncing the pros and cons of Nike and Adidas contracts off each other. So when Williams told Ryan they were "kind of a dying breed," I think that's at least partly what he meant, that the next Gary Williams and Bo Ryan might be few and far between because a desire to teach and coach is no longer the issue that drives many into this profession, though that's precisely what drove Ryan into the profession.
That's why Williams called Ryan a "dying breed." That's why it shouldn't surprise you when Ryan's players improve over their careers. That's why it shouldn't surprise you when Ryan takes a roster with few household names and launches it into the Top 25 despite that same roster being picked by most to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten.
Bottom line, don't ever be surprised again.
I know I won't.