After 14 NCAA tournament bids, four Big Ten championships and back-to-back Final Four appearances, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan announced last July he had only one more season left in him.
Turns out he didn't even stay that long.
Ryan announced his immediate retirement on Tuesday night after an otherwise innocuous 64-49 victory over Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Longtime assistant Greg Gard will take over on an interim basis for the rest of the season.
“After months of conversation with Barry Alvarez and his administrative staff, as well as my wife, Kelly, I have decided that now is the right time to step down from the head coaching position here at Wisconsin,” Ryan said in a statement from the school.
“This was a decision months in the making. I brought this up to Barry back in April. He advised me to take some time to think it over and I appreciated that. But in recent weeks, I have come to the conclusion that now is the right time for me to retire and for Greg Gard to have the opportunity to coach the team for the remainder of the season. I discussed this with Barry and I appreciate him giving me the space to make this decision."
While Ryan's abrupt retirement comes with Wisconsin off to an uncharacteristically slow start, it's unlikely the timing has anything to do with the Badgers' pedestrian 7-5 record. Ryan, 67, knew months ago that a transition season was inevitable with Wisconsin losing five of its top seven players from a team that fell to Duke in the national championship game last April.
The more likely motivation for Ryan's timing is to give his hand-picked successor Gard the chance to prove he deserves the job full-time. Gard has been on Ryan's staff since 1993 when the two were at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville and has passed on chances to become a head coach elsewhere.
Whether piloting Wisconsin back to the NCAA tournament would be enough to earn Gard the full-time gig is unclear at this point. Athletic director Barry Alvarez told reporters in Madison on Tuesday night that the next few months will be a tryout for Gard and that nothing beyond that point is guaranteed.
"I’ll evaluate how he works with the team, how they improve, and make a decision at the end of the year," Alvarez said.
Whoever takes over full-time for Ryan will have a high standard to meet. The silver-haired face of Wisconsin basketball has pushed the Badgers program to heights once unimaginable despite recruiting four-year guys instead of one-and-dones and playing a brand of basketball that was more workmanlike than flashy.
Ryan won 747 games in his head coaching career, made the NCAA tournament in all 14 of his seasons at Wisconsin and never finished lower than a tie for fourth in the Big Ten standings. The Badgers reached the Final Four the past two seasons but fell just short of delivering Ryan his first Division I national championship.
While Ryan considered retiring immediately after last year's Final Four, he instead announced his intention to coach one more season. Weeks later, Ryan waffled on that decision and insisted he might coach beyond the 2015-16 season, a change of heart that seemed to stem from Alvarez's unwillingness to promise the full-time job to Gard without first conducting a national search.
Ryan's midseason retirement ensures Gard a few months to show he's the right man for the job. It's a move reminiscent of the one Jim Calhoun pulled when he retired just before the 2013-14 season, leaving the UConn administration no time to hire a full-time replacement.
Calhoun's hand-picked successor Kevin Ollie inherited the job on an interim basis, secured the full-time job with a 20-win season and then solidified his status by winning the national championship the following year. It won't be easy for Gard to duplicate that fairytale story, but at least he'll get a few months to show what he can do.
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