Al McGuire, Bo Ryan.
Two all-time basketball coaching icons in Wisconsin.
McGuire coached Marquette University 13 years, the school went 295-80 during that span and reached postseason play in each of his final 11 seasons. McGuire’s run culminated with a national runner-up finish in 1974, a regional loss to undefeated Indiana in 1976 and finally a national championship in 1977.
At age 48, McGuire walked away from coaching, making the surprising announcement early in the 1976-77 season.
At the time, Bo Ryan was 29 and starting his first year as an assistant under the late Bill Cofield at the University of Wisconsin, when the Badgers were a perennial Big Ten bottom feeder.
Ryan served as an assistant for eight years. He then made his mark for 15 seasons as the head coach at Wisconsin-Platteville. During the 1990s he lead the Pioneers to four Division III Championships.
After a two-year stint coaching Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Ryan was finally hired as coach of the state’s flagship university in 2001. At 54 he was already six years older than Al McGuire was when he stepped away from caoching.
Ryan has aged like fine wine and his tenure has now lasted longer than McGuire’s. His resume is also just as impressive. The program will be making its 13th trip to the NCAA tournament in as many years and Ryan boasts a 315-118 record in Madison.
What would cap the resume is a national championship. The 2014 season represents Ryan’s best chance.
The team’s body of work is impressive. Wisconsin opened the season defeating a short-handed Florida team 59-53. It was one of only two losses on the season for the Gators. The schools get credit for even scheduling each other, since the game was not a conference challenge or a pre-season tournament.
Wisconsin then downed Saint Louis on a neutral floor and won at Virginia, which that just won the Atlanta Coast Conference regular season over ESPN favorites Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina.
In a conference of stars including Nik Stauskas, Aaron Craft, Yogi Farrell, Terran Petteway and others, the Badgers have more than held their own. Riding a seven game win streak Wisconsin is assured a top three seed when the brackets are announced.
And how tough is the Big Ten? Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern share the conference cellar with 5-11 records. There are no nights off in the league.
The national perception of Badgers basketball has always been one of being a solid program, but not a traditional heavyweight. This year Wisconsin takes a back seat to no one.
Do the math. Who else owns a win over the top ranked Florida and fifth ranked Virginia? There is not a team in America – especially outside of the Big Ten – against whom the Badgers are mismatched on paper.
Milwaukee also serves as a site for second and third round games this year, so the Badgers should enjoy the benefits of playing the first weekend at home, a perk Duke enjoys annually.
If the Badgers make the Sweet 16, the sky is the limit. Many forget Wisconsin’s run to the 2000 Final Four by Ryan predecessor Dick Bennett. At the time it surprised everybody and was considered a fluke.
For the first time, the Final Four and a national title are both realistic expectations, and it is about time.
Legacies and comparisons can be talked about all day. The landscape was different during McGuire’s time. For starters, only 32 teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament, which was not nearly the event it is now.
Bo Ryan already is rightfully named in the same breath as McGuire. A season ending with a Final Four and perhaps National Championship would cap an incredible coaching career.
As Al McGuire said, “Seashells and balloons.”