MADISON – A little more than 16 hours after Bo Ryan told the media following his 747th win as head coach that he would be stepping down as head coach of Wisconsin basketball, Greg Gard, Ryan’s long-time associate head coach, sat in the very same chair and delivered his message.
“I’m the lucky one,” said Gard. “I’ve been the fortunate one because you surround yourself with so many good people, good things can happen.”
Gard will become the 16th person to guide Wisconsin’s basketball program when the Badgers resume action Dec.23 against Green Bay, taking over for a head coach that redefined what the program is and what it can do.
Whether he’s awarded the full time job or not, here are five things Gard needs to do, some sooner rather than later.
1) Steady the Ship
It’s no secret Wisconsin is dealing with a small margin of error this season, something that naturally happens when a team replaces four starters and five upperclassmen with a huge crop of freshmen and inexperience. Through 12 games, Wisconsin is 10th in the conference in scoring and assist-to-turnover ratio, 11th in field goal defense, 12th in 3-point defense and steals and 13th in field goals made and 3-pointers made.
Not only have things been inconsistent with Wisconsin’s bench and first-time starters, the Badgers two veterans – preseason All-Big Ten selections Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes – have been mild disappointments to this point, struggling with their shots, decision making and leadership.
Needless to say, this team can’t afford any distractions.
“Their world has been turned upside down here in the last 24 hours, so we need to make sure they understand we’re here to help,” said Gard. “We’re here to help facilitate them through this, help them through this, and I told them my door is always open.”
Gard spoke to the team Tuesday night after Ryan’s announcement and again on Wednesday.
“I laid some groundwork down of what’s to be expected and where we are, but they understood when they walked out the door that it was about them first and foremost,” said Gard. “I don’t think you can get any group of individuals to come together if they don’t understand that you really care about them or are committed to them.”
He reiterated that this group appears ready to move forward. With a tremendous difficult conference season on the horizon, UW has to be close to clicking on its cylinders or the season will be lost.
2) Decide on the Staff
Gard has an option now to add a third assistant and there would be a number of former players of his who would love to have the job. Problem is it that most of them already have assistant coaching jobs and likely wouldn’t be willing to leave their current position for a role at Wisconsin that is only guaranteed for three months.
“It has to be the right fit if I do decide to do it,” said Gard. “At this point in time of the year, obviously a lot of coaches are employed. We don’t have time to train someone from ground zero. We have to hit the ground running, and we’re prepared to move in either direction (with) whatever that final decision it is that I make and options I have.”
The top candidate would appear to be Howard Moore, who played at Wisconsin in the 90s and was an assistant at Wisconsin under Ryan and with Gard from 2005-10. He left the job to take the head coaching job at Illinois-Chicago, finishing with a 49-111 record over five years. While he’s not in coaching, Moore just started as a Big Ten Network analyst and might not be willing to leave so quickly.
3) Recruit Aggressively
It’s no secret that Wisconsin’s uncertainty at the head coaching position scared off potential recruits, a number of whom cited the comfort with other program’s staff as reasons why the Badgers didn’t make the cut. Ryan’s retirement this season was thought to come at a good time, as UW only had one scholarship in the 2016 class. However, the will-he-won’t-he retirement talk kept that scholarship from being filled.
Not only does the next head coach at Wisconsin have that scholarship to fill, he has to fill the scholarship of the recently departed Riley Dearring and the four available scholarships in the 2017 class. Fortunately for UW, La Crosse Central four-star prospect Kobe King knew Ryan would likely retire at some point, meaning his commitment is currently strong because of his relationship with Gard.
“We will recruit aggressively, that will not change in terms of the mindset,” said Gard. “I need to do the best job for this University and this athletic department and this men’s basketball program to continue to put it in position to have success down the road. We’ve got a great thing going here, an unbelievable place, great people and a culture established, a formula and foundation in place. It’s our responsibility to keep pushing that forward. We understand what makes this place tick both in athletics, academics and what the importance is socially.”
In addition to King, Wisconsin has two known scholarship offers out in the 2017 class (Apple Valley (MN) five-star shooting guard Gary Trent and Des Plaines (Ill.) Stevenson three-star forward Justin Smith).
4) Be Himself
Much like his mentor, Gard doesn’t get too high or too low with any game result or situation. Therefore, it’s not a shock to say he doesn’t expect to be nervous when he’s making the final calls for the first time next Wednesday.
“What you see is what you get,” said Gard. “I try to pride myself on very simple principles.”
Those principles of hard work and treating those around him with respect, Gard said, come from his parents. Gard will likely add a couple new things but won’t be straying too far away from the Ryan model. After all, that’s what he knows best and that’s been the formula for success for the Wisconsin program.
5) Win the Job
Gard has been around the Wisconsin program since he came to a high school summer camp when Steve Yoder was the head coach and Ryan was the assistant in the mid-80s. He’s grown up in the state, understands how the program has got to this point and what it needs to do to get to a higher level going forward.
“(I have) understanding and appreciation of this state, this program, this University and, obviously, Coach Ryan for what he’s done,” said Gard.
Now he has to prove that to Barry Alvarez.
Reiterating that he’s only focused on what needs to be done the next day to get the team in a position to win, it’d be foolish to think Gard hasn’t thought about next season in the back of his mind and what it’s going to take to impress Wisconsin’s athletic director. After all, part of the reason Ryan stepped down Tuesday night was to give Gard the opportunity to prove himself in what boils down to a three month tryout.
After becoming the full-time athletic director in 2006, Alvarez almost always hires coaches with previous head coaching experience for his programs: Gary Andersen and Paul Chryst (football), Kelly Sheffield (volleyball), Jon Trask (men’s soccer) and Paula Wilkins (women’s soccer). The one time he hasn’t has been for women’s basketball, when he hired Bobbie Kelsey. With a 44-84 record over four years, including 16-50 in the Big Ten, and no postseason appearances, the hire hasn’t worked out.
Gard will be able to prove that he knows what it takes to run a program and add his twist on things, as Alvarez will be evaluating team performance, chemistry and a variety of other things when he makes his decision.