ANAHEIM, Calif. — If Bo Ryan’s heart were being pulled in any more directions, it would come apart at the seams.
His Wisconsin team is one game — that’s 40 minutes in Ryan time — from reaching its first NCAA Final Four during his 13-year run as coach. It’s a trip that would get fans and media off Ryan’s back for the one remaining empty line on his stellar resume and validate his status as one of the nation’s elite coaches — whether he likes it or not.
But in a cruel irony, this will be the first Final Four staged since Ryan’s father, Butch, passed away in August at 89. Ryan and his life-of-the-party, never-met-a-stranger-he-couldn’t-talk-to dad were Final Four fixtures for almost 40 years, Bo in his coaching sweat suit, Butch in his heavily provisioned recreational vehicle.
As a card-carrying stoic, Ryan professes to be focused only on top-seeded Arizona, the second-seeded Badgers’ opponent in an Elite Eight game tonight in the West Regional at the Honda Center. The winner will make a very satisfying trip to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
Those closest to Ryan know how much this game means to him, though not for the reason you might think. They say a victory would be important because of the deep connection he had with his father that was galvanized by their trips to the Final Four, and because of the chance to play another game with a loose, confident team he truly enjoys coaching — not because he needs to shed some artificial label as the best coach never to get to the Final Four.
“It would be surreal,” said assistant coach Greg Gard, who has been with Ryan since his days at UW-Platteville. “That would be neat, because obviously the Final Four won’t be the same without Butch. And it would be very ironic if the first one he’s not able to attend had the Badgers there with Bo.”
Arizona, a supremely athletic, defense-minded team that was ranked No. 1 for eight weeks during the season, will have a lot to say about whether Ryan goes to the Final Four as a spectator or a coach. As well as the red-hot Badgers played during the tournament, they will have to raise their play to another level tonight.
But if you think Ryan is concerned about his legacy — or even his father, for that matter — then you haven’t been watching during his unprecedented run of success at UW. His energy is devoted entirely to winning the next game, something that never changes.
“Being here to this point or if we move on, whatever it is, it doesn’t define a person,” Ryan said. “My mom (Louise) had passed away seven months before (Butch), but I think they realize they did a pretty good job in helping their son and daughter realize what life was all about.”
Ryan’s son Matt, a personal basketball trainer who lives in nearby Santa Monica, knows better than most how little his father cares about getting to UW’s first Final Four since 2000 simply to satisfy the critics, mostly young, who complain that his first five trips to the Sweet 16 came up short.
Indeed, the criticism bothers the Ryan family more than it does Ryan himself.
“I think it would mean a lot if he could win this next one,” Matt Ryan said. “We know how good he is, we know his ability. I don’t think this one game is going to change anything, but because of the stock that’s put into it by the fans and the media (it’s important). But it is a huge event, it’s our Super Bowl. It would be a nice thing, not just for the town and for the fans, but I think it would mean a lot to our family. And I think my father deserves it. He’s worked hard.”
Matt Ryan said making the Final Four is not an obsession with his father, who won four NCAA Division III titles at Platteville. In fact, Ryan doesn’t even consider the Final Four to be any kind of goal, just another step along the way.
“He’s never talked about the Final Four,” Gard said, including his time with Ryan at Platteville. “He’s always talked about trying to win the national championship.”
Whether Butch’s death mellowed him or he now has grandchildren to entertain or even because he has formed a special bond with his current group of players, Ryan isn’t lugging a burden around this season.
“He seems calmer and looser, and I think the team has the same kind of vibe about them,” Matt Ryan said. “This whole locker room feels light. I wouldn’t say he’s changed, especially with his coaching style and philosophy. I don’t think that will ever change. But I see a softer side from him.”
One final irony is that Arizona coach Sean Miller is starting to hear the same whispers about his inability to reach the Final Four as Ryan. Miller, a UW assistant coach 20 years ago, has been to two Elite Eights — one at Xavier, one at Arizona — without advancing.
“It’s always bitter when you lose,” Miller said. “But if it happens (tonight), it will be nice to see (Ryan) take that next step because he’s one of the great coaches in our game, for sure.”
That has already been determined. It may be unfair, but Ryan’s legacy has not.