ANAHEIM, Calif. — As the rest of his peers were watching last year's Final Four from their seats at the Georgia Dome, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was rummaging through an Atlanta hotel room in search of his dad's wallet.
Ryan had taken his father to the Final Four as a birthday gift every year since 1976, but Butch's declining health rendered him unable to attend the games in person last April. They planned instead to watch the games from Butch's hotel room until the elder Ryan grew so fixated on misplacing his wallet that he couldn't focus on anything else.
"We searched everywhere multiple times because losing that wallet was the end of the world to Butch," Wisconsin assistant coach Lamont Paris recalled. "What I take from that story is that it shows the type of guy Bo is. He wanted to spend that moment with his dad even though his dad couldn't enjoy the games the way he had in years past. If for one moment it would make his dad reminisce about how things used to be and give his dad some joy, then it was all worth it."
The only way Bo won't be in the stands for the Final Four in Arlington next weekend would be for an entirely different reason. If second-seeded Wisconsin upsets top-seeded Arizona in Saturday's West Regional final, the Badgers will earn the first Final Four bid of Bo's illustrious coaching career, a feat that no doubt would have made Butch very proud were he still alive to see it.
Butch died the morning of Aug. 30 in Fort Myers, Fla., at age 89, leaving behind a rich tapestry of stories about his colorful life. Bo admits his dad would have enjoyed following the Badgers this March, but he insists making his first Final Four the year after Butch's death would not be bittersweet because the elder Ryan didn't measure a person's worth by how many games they won.
"Excellence to him wasn't so much the trophy. It was all about the experiences gained along the way," Bo said. "Being here to this point or if we move on, it doesn't define a person. I think my mom and dad realized they did a pretty good job helping their son and daughter realize what life is all about."
The tradition of Bo and Butch attending the Final Four together began almost accidentally.
They went for the first time because the host city for the 1976 Final Four was Philadelphia, which was only about 25 miles northeast of Bo's hometown of Chester, Pa. The weekend was so much fun that Bo decided he'd make it an annual father-son bonding trip no matter where the Final Four was held.
If a retired pipe fitter and longtime youth sports coach might normally be out of place among Bo's coaching pals, that wasn't the case with Butch. The elder Ryan was both fearless enough to engage college basketball's most high-profile coaches in conversation without an invitation and charming enough to endear himself to them with his quick wit.
"In the hotel lobby, Butch has always been more popular than Bo," longtime Wisconsin assistant Greg Gard said. "It was always, 'Oh, you're Butch's son.'
"Other coaches could have their entourage with them, bodyguards, it didn't matter. It didn't matter if it was Dean Smith. Nobody was above Butch in terms of who he thought he could approach."
Ask someone associated with the Wisconsin program for their favorite Butch Ryan story, and there's a good chance you'll get a different anecdote from each of them.
There was the time Butch fell getting off the Wisconsin team bus during the 2002 NCAA tournament, only to get up and declare without hesitation, "Don’t worry. I won World War II."
Or the day Wisconsin upset seventh-ranked Illinois at the Kohl Center during the 2001-02 season, and Butch sprinted onto the floor to join the Badgers' celebration at mid-court.
Or the night when Butch ran into rapper M.C. Hammer at the 1993 Final Four and challenged him to a dance-off, somehow leading to an invitation to appear at one of Hammer's future concerts.
Gard's favorite anecdote dates all the way back to 1994 when he and Bo were still coaching at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. Butch had parked his RV in a section of the Charlotte Coliseum parking lot reserved for campers, all of which were flying flags of one of the Final Four teams that year.
"There wasn't a Platteville flag at the time," Gard said. "Nobody had invented one. So Butch had this Platteville basketball sweatshirt that was orange, and he ran it up the flagpole. This sweatshirt was flying with the two sleeves tied to the pole. That was how we found his RV. Just look for the sweatshirt flying above it."
Stories like that make it clear from whom Bo inherited his sense of humor and ability to connect easily with strangers. Bo also took his passion for teaching, his love of sports and his relentless work ethic from Butch, a World War II veteran who earned the Bronze Star for rescuing fellow servicemen from a destroyer attacked by kamikazes in the South Pacific.
Before Bo ever coached at Wisconsin, reached 13 straight NCAA tournaments or advanced to his second Elite Eight, his dad would brag about him in the lobby of coaches' hotel at the Final Four to some of the legends of the sport.
"Bo was a Division III coach, and Butch would let everyone know, 'Hey, have you seen my son? He's the best coach in the country," said Wisconsin Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter, a former player under Ryan at Wisconsin Platteville. "There were times he'd say that in the lobby, and guys would kind of roll their eyes and say oh that's Butch. But they respected Butch and they respected Bo. It was just a matter of Bo getting his opportunity, and taking advantage of it."
Another opportunity awaits Bo with Wisconsin one win away from their coach being able to shed the label of one of the best in his sport never to make a Final Four.
"To have a team there would be pretty special," Ryan admitted.
It would be even more special if his dad could enjoy the achievement with him.
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