Bo Ryan sent shockwaves through the college basketball industry late on Tuesday night when he abruptly announced his retirement effective immediately. His immediate replacement will be assistant coach Greg Gard, who Ryan believes is more than qualified for the job.
“His record as an assistant coach,” Ryan said during his press conference. “I told the team that there are people who have received head coaching jobs who were assistants at places without anywhere near the record that he has.”
What else do you need to know about Gard? Here’s a primer on Ryan’s hand-picked successor, and the now-interim coach of the Wisconsin Badgers.
1. Gard is Ryan’s longest-tenured assistant
Despite only being 44 years old, Gard was in the middle of his 23rd consecutive season as an assistant coach under Ryan before being elevated to the interim job, dating back all the way back to their days at UW-Platteville and UW-Milwaukee. If you willingly spend one-third of your life with someone on a day-to-day basis like Ryan has with Gard, you do it out of admiration and affection. So it makes sense that Ryan would feel as strongly about Gard getting the job as he does.
And don’t mistake that part of this retirement. Ryan has been vocal since his statement back in June about his future that Gard should succeed him, saying at the time that he “decided to coach one more season with the hope that my longtime assistant Greg Gard eventually becomes the head coach at Wisconsin.” Ryan wants Gard to get the job, and believes he’s very deserving of it.
Ryan’s part in this is clear. Anytime you get smart people around you, you want them to stick around. But for Gard’s part, there’s obviously a rabbit in the room. Why did he never move on as other assistants like Tony Bennett, Saul Phillips and Rob Jeter got top jobs around him?
It’s not that he didn’t have offers, as Toledo, Army and Green Bay all expressed interest back in the late 2000s. Instead, Gard simply realized he had a good thing going, and decided to be rather picky. He’s also very much a Wisconsinite, through and through, having gone to Platteville for school and staying in the state for his entire life. And now he’ll get the chance to lead his state’s marquee basketball program.
2. Gard is also among the most well-respected assistants in the country
As far as actual acumen, it’s hard to come more well-respected than Gard. Beyond Ryan’s obvious appreciation, plenty of others — both journalists and coaches alike — have said in the past Gard is near the top of the list when it comes to the best assistants in college hoops. He’s particularly known for being one of the best coaches in the country as far as creating scouting reports.
“I do think he’s one of the better assistant coaches, not in the Big Ten, but in the country,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told Fox Sports back in 2014. “I think he works his tail off. I was with him a couple times last year where he had driven forever to get to places. He has been pretty loyal as an assistant there. I have the utmost respect for him. I think he’s one of the guys that’ll be in the chair that I’m sitting in some day soon. He’s going to be a head coach. There’s no question in my mind.”
He also has the support of past Wisconsin players, including Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, the aforementioned Phillips, and Joe Krabbenhoft.
“It’ll be hard to fill (Ryan’s) shoes, no matter what,” Krabbenhoft, now an assistant at South Dakota State, told the Wisconsin State-Journal. “But coach Gard has done a lot for that program. I think if you took a poll of former players, we’d all be behind coach Gard.”
3. None of this means that he’s a shoo-in to get the job, though
And that seems to be a big reason that Ryan is going out when he is: to give his hand-picked assistant Gard a chance to win the job. Athletic director Barry Alvarez said after the game that Gard has been given the interim tag.
“Greg is the interim coach,” Alvarez said. “I’ll evaluate how he works with the team, how they improve, and where they are. And then make a decision at the end of the year, what we want to do to move forward.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, as Alvarez never guaranteed Gard the opportunity after Ryan’s statement this summer, according to sources from CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish. It seems that Alvarez might want to take his search national instead of simply local. And that national search would likely be focused on one guy above all others.
Bennett is a former assistant under Ryan and the son of former Badger coach Dick Bennett. He’s also obviously gone on to make a name for himself as a coach at Virginia, winning back-to-back ACC regular season crowns over traditional blue-bloods like Duke and North Carolina. He’s unequivocally one of the best coaches in college basketball, and his connections will make him a candidate for this job. Bennett might not have a great reason to leave Virginia for this job beyond sentimentalism, but the odds are high Alvarez will make him say no to Wisconsin.
Other elite coaches at non-traditional power programs could pop up in the rumor mill too if Bennett declines simply because that’s what tends to happen when big jobs open. I’m not of the opinion this is the kind of job that gets Archie Miller to leave Dayton, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear his name pop up as someone the Badgers want to talk to. Maybe even some of the great mid-major coaches around college hoops hear their names bandied about. Ben Jacobson at Northern Iowa, for instance, is certainly a guy who would make sense to come up due to his midwestern ties and terrific success.
But before then, it seems like Gard’s going to have a real chance to win this job. And it’s going to be one of the most fascinating stories in college basketball throughout the rest of the season watching him try to do it.