All eyes in Chester on Ryan
The stops on Bo Ryan's coaching resume sound like a road trip across southern Wisconsin, from Platteville to Milwaukee to Madison. He has been pacing sidelines for so long in this state, it's hard to imagine Ryan being anywhere but the Midwest.
His roots, though, run deep in the East.
The Badgers under Ryan are inextricably linked to the sidewalks and basketball courts of the Philadelphia suburb of Chester, Pa., where the 66-year-old Ryan grew up and starred as a point guard in high school. Those ties are especially prominent in Wisconsin's run to the Final Four after the death of Ryan's father, Butch, a longtime youth baseball and basketball coach who passed away last summer.
“He was always about the kids that he helped mentor growing up, and you know, that's why I do it,” Ryan said after Wisconsin beat Arizona 64-63 in overtime to advance to a Final Four matchup with Kentucky on Saturday.
“Today would have been my dad's 90th birthday,” Ryan said after the win over the Wildcats.
No one would blame Ryan for showing cracks in his often stoic facade. Spend enough time with him and maybe he'll even tell a story from his upbringing, complete with a tinge of a Philly accent that makes it feel as if he's holding court on a stoop.
Ryan once said growing up on the streets of Chester steeled him in life, to the point where it was hard to get him to the point “where you feel you have no hope.” The Ryan family lived in a row house; the elder Ryan, a decorated World War II veteran, worked as a pipe fitter.
The experiences helped influence how Ryan coaches. His father passed along a tireless work ethic that Ryan has displayed working his way up the coaching ladder. And if you see that reflected in his teams, there's a reason.
“That mental toughness, don't let anything get past you,” Milwaukee assistant Sharif Chambliss said in describing the influence of Ryan's roots. A former player under Ryan, Chambliss grew up in Racine, a small Wisconsin city that reminds him of Chester.
A 12-point halftime deficit, like the one overcome by Wisconsin against Oregon in the regional semifinals, doesn't seem insurmountable. A 1-5 stretch like the one Wisconsin went through at midyear doesn't mean the season is lost.
“Getting the most out of each guy — coach is going to take those guys who are tough and just get the most out of them,” Chambliss said.
Ryan's coaching career started in 1972 at Brookhaven High School in Delaware County, Pa. He arrived in the Midwest for good in 1976 when he was hired as an assistant at Wisconsin.
The first head coaching job came at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, where his highly successful 15-year run began in 1984. Two years at Wisconsin-Milwaukee followed before Ryan got the job at the Wisconsin system's main campus in Madison in 2001.
While Ryan traded in cheesesteaks for cheeseheads decades ago, he's never stopped talking about Chester.
“Oh, I've heard ever story over the last 21 years. Some of them eight or 10 times,” Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard said.
As Gard understands it, Chester has had tough economic times. But it's also a scholastic basketball power in Pennsylvania, a point of pride likely shared last week by Ryan and a fellow alumnus, Arizona freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Ryan is “very tough-minded. And I think that whole thing in terms of street toughness, the understanding that there's an appreciation for what you have. The willingness to never quit, never give up,” Gard said. “He came from a family that had limited resources financially, so you have an appreciation for what it takes; what hard work really is.”
No shortcuts at Wisconsin. One of the team's tasks during an offseason training regimen is to run a steep and grassy hill at a park in Madison. Unless you're hurt, you go — one round-trip for each game on the schedule.
It's a point of pride for the players after it's over.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers, who is from just outside Philadelphia, has to coach against Ryan's team every season in the Big Ten. They've grown closer since Chambers arrived in the league in 2011 since the two spend summer vacations near each other on the New Jersey coast.
Chambers is familiar with the Chester attitude. He sees it passed on to the Badgers.
“They're cocky, they're confident, but not overconfident,” Chambers said. “They are very confident in who they are, and they know who they're not.”
Two more wins and Wisconsin will be called national champions. Chester will probably be watching.