Greg Gard's improbable journey from a hog farm to the hardwood

Greg Gard's improbable journey from a hog farm to the hardwood

Each time he runs into the man who cut him from the Wisconsin-Platteville baseball team about a quarter century ago, Greg Gard does something few would do in his position.

He thanks his former coach profusely.

Gard's career path changed for the better once his inability to hit a college-level curve ball was exposed.

Having grown up cleaning stalls on his parents' hog farm, Gard had long been content to major in agricultural business and sell tractors for a living after he graduated. Only after being cut from the baseball team did the former three-sport high school athlete realize he wasn't happy without a competitive outlet.

"There was just something missing in my life," Gard said. "When baseball didn't work out, I happened to see an ad in a local shopping guide for a job coaching eighth-grade boys basketball for $800. While all my other classmates were bagging groceries or washing cars to earn money, that was my job. It helped pay for college and it became something I really enjoyed."

In the 25 years since he began dabbling in coaching, Gard has advanced farther than he ever thought possible. He met Bo Ryan while still in college and quickly earned a spot on the future hall of fame coach's staff, ascending from volunteer assistant, to trusted lieutenant, to hand-picked successor.

When Ryan abruptly retired Tuesday night after his 364th victory at Wisconsin, the timing of the announcement was meant to provide Gard the best chance to replace him.

He didn't retire last summer when Gard's father was in the throes of fatal illness. He didn't retire after the season when athletic director Barry Alvarez would have time to conduct a national search. Instead he did it after an innocuous mid-December win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi, giving Gard eight days to prepare for his first game as head coach and three-plus months to prove that he's the right man for the job.

"It really shows how Bo looks after and takes care of his guys," said Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter, a member of Ryan's staff from 1994-98 and from 1999-2005. "Greg has been with Bo for almost his entire run and I know Bo values that. He saw something in Greg a long time ago even though Greg wasn't a former player or anyone Bo had known before. Greg made his own way, and I think that's really special."

The challenge for Gard the next few months will be molding an uncharacteristically inconsistent Wisconsin team into NCAA tournament contenders. Having lost five of their seven top players from last year's Final Four team, the Badgers (7-5) have already suffered three home losses against the likes of Western Illinois, Milwaukee and rival Marquette.

There's immense pressure on Gard to succeed with his job at stake, but those close to him think he's too even-keeled to let it unnerve him. They expect him to approach the next three months the same way he always would even if Alvarez will surely have Virginia's Tony Bennett or Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson on speed dial should Gard falter.

"I can't say Greg won't feel any pressure, but knowing the way he operates, I don't think it will affect him," younger brother Jeff Gard said. "He's not going to worry that he's auditioning for his job. That's not how he's wired. He's going to think, 'This is not about me. This is about the guys in the locker room.' When he does that, the higher-ups will see it. They'll see he is the right hire."

One reason Ryan already has faith in Gard is because they have known each other so long.

Gard attended Ryan's basketball camps from eighth grade on and bonded with the coach once he began working those same camps during college. The UW-Platteville staff kept giving Gard more responsibilities each summer until Ryan finally called him over and offered him a full-time position as an undergraduate assistant.

Gard eagerly accepted the gig before realizing that it came with some unforeseen complications. One of UW-Platteville's top players shared an apartment with Gard.

"It was definitely a little odd," Gard said. "I'd hang out with him at the apartment, then I'd tell him he wasn't working hard enough during practice, then we'd go back to the apartment. There were some interesting nights and conversations, but I learned pretty early what line I could cross and what line I could not cross."

Gard's ascent from volunteer assistant to Ryan's second in command was only possible because of his work ethic and humility. He made himself indispensable not only with his skill as a recruiter, tactician and communicator but also by being willing to do menial tasks others in his position might have considered beneath them.

Sweep the floors before practice? Sure thing. Paint the walls of the coaching office? Not a problem. Heck, once he even rode up and down a parade route in a golf cart hawking UW-Platteville merchandise in hopes of raising money for the program.

"When you're at that level, you try to maximize all the resources you can and try to make more out of less," Gard said. "I never thought anything of it. I was never above it. It helped the team that I was part of."

In an era when assistants frequently jump from job to job every few years, Gard's career path is very unusual. He turned down chances to work at the Division I level when he was a U-W Platteville assistant and opportunities to interview for numerous mid-major head coaching jobs since he got to Wisconsin.

Some of that was loyalty to Ryan. Some of that was the desire not to uproot his wife and young children. But much of it was following the example set by his mom and dad, a high school secretary and an agricultural loan officer who remained at their respective jobs for nearly 40 years apiece.

"They taught us when someone gives you something good, be appreciative of it and don't always be looking for the next job," Jeff Gard said. "Greg was always that way. He was never looking for the next job. People sought him out but he was always comfortable where he's at. He'd always ask himself, 'Was this place any better than where I'm at right now?'"

Thankfully for Wisconsin fans, the answer was always no. Thus Gard stayed in Madison and remained the glue that held a tight-knit program together.

Gard did a little bit of everything for Ryan at Wisconsin, from assembling the non-conference schedules, to preparing meticulous scouting reports, to scouring the state of Minnesota for talent. Among the key players he recruited for the Badgers were Jordan Taylor, Jon Leuer, Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz.

One of the most significant tactical changes Ryan has ever made was also at the behest of Gard. The longtime assistant suggested ditching Ryan's trademark rigid, structured swing offense and going with a more free-flowing system after Wisconsin landed future pros Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes, among others.

"Gardo's responsibilities were not those of a typical assistant coach," said Ohio coach Saul Phillips, who worked alongside Gard from 1999-2004. "He had his hands on every aspect of that program. Bo delegated to him as much as Bo has ever delegated to anyone his entire life and trusted him to do things without even giving specific instructions. When you're coaching, you develop players, you implement strategies and you identify players who can help you. Gardo's done all that. He's as ready for this as anyone could ever be."

As Gard prepares to lead the flagship program in his home state, he can't help but look back at all the people who have helped him get this opportunity.

He's thankful to Ryan for mentoring a farm boy with little experience but big dreams. He's thankful to his parents for instilling the value of hard work and loyalty in him at a young age. And he's thankful to Curt Fatzinger, the former Wisconsin-Platteville baseball coach who cut him from the team and set him free to find his true calling.

"I remind him every time I see him, 'I'd probably be in the Major League hall of fame by now if it wasn't for you derailing my career,'" Gard quipped.

"I tell him I'm the one who got him started in coaching," Fatzinger countered with a chuckle. "Without me cutting him, he wouldn't have started coaching and he wouldn't be with Coach Ryan."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!