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October 2, 2009 • Basketball

The Big Cheese

He’s beloved in the Dairy State and revered in the Big Ten but it’s about time Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan receive overdue national recognition

COACH: You began playing basketball at an early age as your father, Butch, coached youth baseball, basketball, and football in the Philadelphia area. What was it about the game that captured your imagination and shaped your future? How about your dad’s teaching approach and how that influenced you?

RYAN: I was always around competition, through my dad and his brothers. We always had get-togethers with the family, whether it was horseshoes or races. The uncles used to put the nephews in races and brag about who was the fastest. And then watching my dad coach kids, it was always neat to see how they developed. You’d look at a kid and say, “He can’t play.” And by the end of the year the kid was ready to be all-whatever. I always liked that aspect of coaching, that you can always help people get better. I noticed that at a young age. My dad had to be tough. He yelled a little bit, but it was tough love. So many of those guys came back years later and thanked him what he did for them.

COACH: At Chester (PA) High School, you were a highly successful and gifted point guard on the basketball team, guiding the squad to a 25-1 record your senior season. You also participated in football and baseball and served as President of your class. So you were accustomed to and relished being in a leadership role during your scholastic days. In your opinion, what coaching traits are needed to be a leader on and off the court?

RYAN: The positions I played – quarterback, point guard, and shortstop – I always felt that helped me learn more about the various sports and everybody else’s responsibilities. When you’re a player, you have to take care of your own things first. But being in those positions, for the three sports, you learn what every player on the field or court does and needs to do. All of those things helped me later on in coaching, because of the overall knowledge of the sport of basketball.

The other thing about being a leader is trust. My former classmates told me later on that they trusted that I would do the right thing for the class as an officer. So that trust factor is a must as a coach.

COACH: Following your high school career you played point guard at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA. It was there that you discovered that while you didn’t quite have the talent to succeed on the next level, your passion for basketball remained. At what point did you decide that coaching was in your blood?

RYAN: I was a business major and when I graduated I was intent on making a gazillion dollars. But a funny thing happened on the way. I got drafted into the Army in 1969, about a month or two after graduating from college. I had taken a job with ARCO – and they had the job waiting for me when I got back – but when I was in the Army I realized that I missed athletics and missed that competitive environment.

That was the first time I was ever away from sports. Because of my role in the Army, the military police, I wasn’t allowed to play on the traveling basketball team. That’s when I began to think about how much I wanted to coach and teach. I had always had an interest in coaching but that put it over the top. 

COACH: You accepted an offer as an assistant coach at the College of Racine (WI). You then took over as head coach at Sun Valley High in Aston, PA, winning 1976 Delaware County Coach of the Year honors before you began an eight-year run as an assistant under Bill Cofield and Steve Yoder, respectively, at the U. of Wisconsin-Madison until 1984. What did you learn about yourself during those early years and how did that prepare you for your rise up the coaching ranks?

RYAN: Here’s the thing I did learn, even as an assistant and just being in coaching and teaching: the impact that you can have on people’s lives and how you can help them. And it becomes addictive. I don’t meddle in people’s lives but if they need a reference, if they want to talk, and you help them to be better people simply by putting them in positions of learning and developing. To me, that’s a great reward.

I also learned that I am a competitive guy and that I need to be in this type of environment. Coaching makes the juices flow.

COACH: It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that between 1984 and 1999, you established yourself as the best head coach on the Division III level at the U. of Wisconsin-Platteville. You led the Pioneers to an overall record of 352-76 (82% winning percentage) that included four national championships (1991, 1995, 1998, and 1999). In addition, your teams captured eight Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles and in 1997 set a D-III scoring defense record by allowing a stingy 47.5 points per game. How important was that period as you developed and refined your coaching acumen? What is the most important thing you took with you from that experience?

RYAN: It was a great place to raise a family, first of all, because with young children I was moving to a community where your kids were going to be able to stick to one place and attend all the different levels of schooling. My wife and I didn’t go there with the idea to win and leave. We went there with the idea of raising a family.

In order to be a head coach, you have to learn that the buck stops here. You get a chance to paint rather than carry the brushes. And you have to be able to deal with the different talents and personalities. What we did at Platteville, which was kind of fun – everybody thinks it was the same old system every year, but it wasn’t. There were some things that the teams did different better than others: Some were better free throw shooters. Some were better defensively.

You learn how to develop a system that is adjustable, that can be fine-tuned according to your personnel, and still are able to get results. 

COACH: After your incredible tenure at Wisconsin-Platteville, you assumed the coaching mantle for two years at a moribund U. of Milwaukee-Wisconsin program. Nevertheless, you quickly raised the Panthers to lofty heights, posting back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in almost a decade. What is the secret to getting players to believe in themselves and the coaching staff?

RYAN: Be persistent. Sell. Sell. And then sell some more. What you’re selling is a chance, an opportunity. A chance to do something that somebody else hasn’t been able to do along the way. A chance for you to develop better as a person. A chance for you to figure out what you have in life that you can use, not only on the basketball court, but when you graduate and pursue as a living. What kind of person do you want to be?

In order for young men and women to do these things in athletics, your social schedule becomes different, as well as your time commitment, and your discipline. There are so many things that go into being a good-student athlete. Those are the things that you have to get them to believe and think about and wake up every morning saying, “OK, what can I get done today.”

COACH: In your first season at Wisconsin (2002), you quickly established it as one of the premier programs not only in the Big Ten, but also in the country, as you guided it to a share of the conference regular-season title for the first time since 1947. The next season the team won the title outright, securing back-to-back crowns for the first time since 1923-24. Prior to your arrival, the Badgers had never won more than 22 games in a season. Yet your teams have averaged 22.4 in your five seasons.

What’s more, you led the program to a school-record 25 games in successive seasons (2003-04 and 2004-05) en route to five straight NCAA tournament appearances, including two Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight.

Throughout your career, your coaching philosophy has proven to be adaptable to any situation that you encounter. As a coach, what do you do to push yourself, or perhaps, reinvent yourself at each location?

RYAN: Number one, it has to flow naturally from the coach. I don’t put on airs. I don’t try to give them a Gipper speech before games. I just try to be as consistent and persistent as possible to get players to understand that it has to come from within.

Learning is great and being able to teach is fun. But the learning has to be internal. When the light goes on with people as they are picking up different things throughout their existence, the neat feeling is that you, as a coach, feel that you have learned something.

When the learning takes place, you want it to be internalized. It’s nice to have external support and information given. If you don’t internalize learning then you might as well say we’re robots. I want players who can think on their feet, who can, when they are done playing, give back to their communities and be active in their adult lives.

I want people who are real, because most of their life is going to be spent not playing sports. So what I try to do is give them an idea of what life is going to be like when the basketball stops bouncing. 

COACH: You have clearly defined yourself as one of the premier proponents of teaching defense. That said, how in this day and age of the me-first mindset of scoring do you preach and demands the benefits of playing at both ends of the floor?

RYAN: Because the coach says one thing: If you don’t play defense you don’t play. That’s oversimplifying the answer. Every good player wants – when the game is over – to have more points than the other team. So you need to score. But if you keep the other team from scoring that’s even better, because some nights you’re not going to make your shots. There’s an old adage that says, you can’t always be on on offense but you can on defense.

Defense is heart, desire, and guys working together. If you want to be someone that takes enjoyment from competing in a game, then obviously you’re trying to make sure that you’re having success with it. Personal success has to be demonstrated as being secondary to the team’s success.

COACH: What would be an ideal practice plan for a novice coach who is developing a new program?

RYAN: What we always like to do right after our stretching is a ball-handling, passing-type drill. We do one or two of those every day to start practice. That way you get comfortable with the ball.

So you always want to have people passing and catching for X number of minutes every day, because the better your hands, the better you feel, the more comfortable you are in a game with the ball, you tend not to turn it over as much.

As far as distances to work on, if you’re running your half-court offense, you’re talking 12-18, maybe, 20 feet max on a pass. Sometimes a skip pass going across the court will be a little further if teams really rotate and jam everything in. But you also want the receiver to be in the best position to do the most good when they catch it. 

COACH: You have produced five basketball instructional videos in addition to authoring three coaching books: Passing and Catching: A Lost Art; How to Run the Swing Offense; and Applying and Attacking Pressure. Take us briefly through your philosophy on each topic.

RYAN: Applying and Attacking Pressure, a lot of that was from my former coach, Ron Rainey, who was influenced by Jack Ramsay in the Philly area, with the Diamond and One and how to attack the pressure as well as applying it. He was my high school and college coach. I played for him for seven years. Tom Davis was also very influential in the pressure part.

Passing and Catching: A Lost Art is a lot about receiving, hand targets, and position. The receiver, not the passer, causes a lot of turnovers. That’s due to positioning, angles, and spacing. By saying a lost art, again, sometimes the ball gets thrown around a little bit more than you would like as a coach. And possession of the ball is valuable.

The Swing Offense talks about the different reads of the swings: the up screens, back screens, fade screens, and a few specials that we run off of that.

COACH: As a follow-up, explain the importance of passing and catching. What wisdom can you impart on how to develop the proper fundamentals essential for transporting the ball?

RYAN: First of all, you have to care. It has to matter to you. There are two ways you can be successful on offense: get more shots and get better shots. The way you get more shots is, get on the offensive boards and don’t throw the ball away. Because every time you have a turnover, that’s a shot you didn’t get. Or possibly two, if it’s an offensive rebound.

How do you get better shots? Well, touch the post, get to the free throw line – it’s a higher percentage shot – take good shots mechanically. Not fading left or fading backwards. Those are the two principles that we play off of with every drill and everything we do in basketball.

COACH: One of the most common coaching mistakes is to provide inaccurate feedback and advice on how to correct errors. Good coaches can recognize when their players make two types of errors: learning errors and performance errors. What is your approach when it comes to detecting and correcting errors?

RYAN: We do a lot of video work. They all have their notebooks and they can see it. As the old saying goes, the film doesn’t lie. And you have to be fortunate to coach young men who have their minds open, ears open, and their eyes open. They understand that you are doing it for them and it will help them get better. They buy in quickly.

COACH: While players can improve by practicing, what can a coach do to work on his or her inadequacies?

RYAN: I watch other teams play on tape or TV. You look for different things they are using to attack a certain kind of defense. And on offense I am looking at what they are doing when an opponent takes something away here or there. And it’s not just teams you’re going to play. Once the basketball coaching is in a person, every time you watch a game you’re analyzing something.

One of the things that has helped me tremendously is the experience I have had and the fact that I am going to get even more. That’s pretty exciting. I don’t have all of the answers. I’m trying to get them. As long as you stay green you will grow. And I’m staying green. There are still a lot of things I want to pick up on.

COACH: What is the key to being not only a good teacher for your players but also a good listener?

RYAN: They have to know that you care. It’s one of those things where if people aren’t comfortable with what you are saying or how you are saying it, then you need to figure out a way to sell the belief that you are doing this for them. Make them feel good about listening to what I am saying. Because I am going to listen to what they say and then I’m going to give them feedback, not only on their comments, but on their actions when they’re out on the court.

COACH: You have obviously paid your dues in the high school ranks and lower level of college basketball. What tips can you provide current assistants with head coaching aspirations or head coaches at smaller programs who may be frustrated at failing to get an opportunity to prove themselves at a higher-profile job?

RYAN: Do the best you can in the next hour, the next day, the next week. Take care of the job you have now. When was I coaching in junior high school, I never wasted a lot of time thinking about where else I could coach. I was so busy trying to help those guys get things done. And when I was at Platteville and anywhere else coaching, including right now at Wisconsin, I don’t think about other jobs.

While you are coaching at your current school, just do a good job and good things will happen. I think that’s one of the things the younger coaches today lose sight of. If you’re coaching junior high, be the best junior high coach you can be. If you’re an assistant in high school, be the best high school assistant you can be.

Stay loyal and make sure that the players you are coaching believe that you are in it for them. If you do that, then you will always have the chance to make the next move. 

COACH: Many people are probably unaware that you possess the highest winning percentage among NCAA coaches with at least 20 years of head coaching experience. Obviously that is a testament to your ability to teach and lead. Can you put your finger on what has allowed you to enjoy such a successful, consistent run?

RYAN: Keeping everything in its proper perspective. You learn as you’re growing up. You learn from your parents, your teachers, and your coaches. And you learn from the people that you have worked with, the administrators and chancellors at various colleges and universities.

We all take our queues from someone. I’ve been very fortunate to be around some very, very good people growing up who were successful for the right reasons. And I don’t mean monetarily.

I’ve always tried to take traits from people that are good at something and just learn from what they do. I try to incorporate that into my life everyday. I’m one of those people who are always looking to pick something up. I’ve learned something today that I can use and I can’t wait for tomorrow because I can learn something else.

About the Author

Kevin Newell is the former editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.


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