Instead, he bows out in a fashion not too different from Wisconsin’s previous full-time coach, Dick Bennett. Just months after a Final Four appearance, Bennett said he had enough and gave assistant Brad Soderberg a try.
Bennett later resurfaced at Washington State. Don’t look for Ryan to seek an encore elsewhere.
Ryan leaves the Badgers in the wake of back-to-back Final Four trips and in the hands of longtime assistant Greg Gard. The decision’s timing might coincide with the end of the fall semester, but it was clearly important to Ryan for his longtime aide to earn a credible shot at the full-time job. This does that, even if Wisconsin (7-5) has already surpassed its loss total from last year.
This also marks the continued fade of the oldest of old-school career arcs: From middle school coach to high school coach to college assistant to lower-level college coach to mid-level college coach to high-level college coach. Ryan led teams at every level. He was a rarity, and ends his career with another unusual feat — a victory. Tuesday’s win provides him with a luxury afforded few retiring coaches, who usually see their seasons end with an NCAA tournament ouster.
Contextualizing his career isn’t the easiest exercise, if only because rhetorical troglodytes can point to the lack of a Division I national championship during Ryan’s 15-year run in Madison and dismiss him. But he does have four national titles (all in the 1990s at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville) and also owns a career mark of 747-233 and a school-record 364 victories with the Badgers.
His Wisconsin squads were known best for defense, but his best Badgers teams — his last two full seasons — were utterly ruthless offensive machines powered by the likes of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Ryan also developed the harmonic swing offense and filled his rosters with versatile players who could shoot, pass, cut and screen in tandem in symphonic fashion.
But those teams were elegant compared to previous iterations of Ryan’s rosters that were H-A-R-D hard to watch as they engaged in possession-by-possession cage matches, especially against more talented foes. That maddening grind was the surest way for the Badgers to even the odds. And often they did.
Each of his 14 full-year teams in Madison earned a top-four finish in the Big Ten standings, something not even Tom Izzo could claim in that span, while only four of those teams landed a No. 3 seed or better in the NCAA tournament. Few coaches have cranked out consistently good teams this century like Ryan.
He was unapologetic for the way he constructed his teams and took some heat for being crotchety after April’s national title game loss with his reference to “rent-a-players” and his critique of officiating. But that sort of got to the heart of Ryan’s career: He was going to handle his business as he saw fit and say what he wanted to say, and cared very little how it was perceived. Age only amplified that philosophy.
When it comes to sizing up Ryan, age is a critical element. The man didn’t get his first Division I head coaching job (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) until he was 51. He didn’t take over at Wisconsin until he was 53. It left plenty of time to make the Badgers a nuisance in their worst years and a menace in their best. It still wasn’t all that long to make an impact, relative to other high-level coaches, so he made the most of the time allotted.
Consider the active Division I coaches with national title rings. Rick Pitino was 26 in his first game as a full-time Division I head coach (and even younger when he had an interim stint at Hawaii). Mike Krzyzewski was 28, John Calipari was 29, Bill Self was 30. Of the 11 coaches in the category, only one was older than 40 (Steve Fisher was 43 when Michigan opened the 1989 NCAA tournament).
The tempting comparison is John Chaney, who like Ryan was also a high school coach and also claimed a lower-level national title (a Division II crown at Cheyney State). He was 50 when he took over at Temple, took the Owls to five regional finals, and eventually landed in the Hall of Fame.
Chances are, Ryan — a finalist for that honor in the spring — will eventually do the same.