MADISON – Nigel Hayes knew something was different the minute the lights went out for pre-game introductions.
For the last year and a half, Bo Ryan never made eye contact with the forward after hearing his name announced. But prior to Wisconsin’s nonconference game against Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Ryan made eye contact for the first time.
“This game we did and he had the saddest look I've ever seen him have,” Hayes said. “I guess now it makes sense why he looked like that.”
Ryan made it official following the game Tuesday night, announcing his retirement effective immediately and handing the reins over to associate head coach Greg Gard on an interim basis, which was his hope all along.
The announcement came after his 494th game at Wisconsin, fittingly a win.
“Here's what I told the players: I got six months with this group, because of the circumstances,” Ryan said. "That's a joy. The thing was, I thought it was time. But I couldn't make the decision at that time. And I don't know how many coaches ever have the opportunity to have an AD and an administration that understand and respects that."
A 2015 Naismith Hall of Fame finalist, Ryan retires with 747 career wins and 19 championships. During his 14-plus years at Wisconsin, the Badgers won 364 games, seven Big Ten championships and took the program to two Final Fours the last two seasons.
“What’s a good time (to retire),” said Ryan. “What we came down to was semester. This is semester. We start finals and I want to give Coach Gard plenty of time to get the guys ready and to get them in position, where as a head coach, he has a chance … to take a run at the job.”
The 45-year-old Gard inherits a young roster but a roster he helped piece together. Of the eight players in Wisconsin’s rotation, Gard had a hand in recruiting five of them.
“He’s been really good for me, on and off the court, stressing the importance of getting good grades and getting your degree,” junior guard Bronson Koenig said of Gard, who recruited the four-star point guard out of La Crosse, before the season. “He’s probably talked to me more about stuff involving school than basketball-related things. I think he’ll make a great head coach.”
When Ryan initially announced his intention this past summer to coach the 2015-16 season and then retire, he specifically mentioned Gard in his statement as being hopeful his associate head coach would be named his successor.
At the time, Gard called the statement “humbling.” Now he calls it an opportunity.
“I’ve never had more than a one year contract my entire career, so for me, it’s never been about the pressure that way,” said Gard. “Our job is still to put these young men the best position to have success here as student-athletes, hopefully athletes on the court."
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez also addressed the team following the game and told them not be afraid of change, dusting off parts of a speech he’s used on the football team twice in the last three seasons following the departure of head coaches. He also heaped praise on Ryan.
“His record speaks for itself,” said Alvarez. “He’s a legend. He’s a hall of famer. He’s won his way at every level. He brought that style of basketball here and won here at this level.”
Alvarez said he’ll be evaluating Gard with how he interacts with the team and how the group improves over the next few months, among other factors, before making a decision whether or not to remove the interim tag from his title.
“My response has always been ‘Absolutely, there should be,’” said Gard. “That’s his job, and I’ve never flinched or blinked from that. His responsibility is to put the best person in place to lead this program going forward. I’ve never had an issue with that."