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Bo Ryan's sudden retirement, like everything he does, went exactly according to plan

Bo Ryan retired in the middle of the season after a legendary career at Wisconsin. It's all part of the plan.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Bo Ryan prepared for his retirement with a statement he wrote down to be read after his last game as Wisconsin's head coach. Midway through his final press conference, he took out the folded paper from his pocket then put it aside.

"I had written stuff down? I can't do that. I've gotta tell you -- I've gotta tell you how I feel."

Of course, Ryan hated the script. Wisconsin success has been much different than that of any other college basketball powerhouse -- and let's make this clear, Wisconsin was a powerhouse under Ryan. He had principles -- like an unwavering devotion to offensive efficiency at the sake of pace, and an ambivalence towards five-star recruits who might not stick around long enough to thrive in the swing offense -- that put Wisconsin in contention against college basketball's best.

Ryan was emotional at the microphone as he laid out the eight-month chronology of his decision -- how he wanted to retire in April after Wisconsin lost in the national title game, and how athletic director Barry Alvarez talked him out of a rash decision. He heaped praise on his longtime assistant Greg Gard, now the interim head coach of the Badgers, and the current squad struggling after a 7-5 start: "I just -- I just know that they'll respond. We've got good people."

Ryan told reporters that what had to say would be difficult for him, and implored them to "bear with me." He got choked up at times, but the words seemed easy. Ryan was always at his best when he could dictate the terms of the conversations. Radio interviews didn't always go well, like when he went on Mike & Mike in 2012 and tried to defend his attempt to block Jarrod Uthoff from transferring to any of Wisconsin's rivals.

By contrast, he controlled Tuesday's proceedings. He said what he felt he needed to say, then left Alvarez and Gard to take questions.


(Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports)

Ryan's announcement in the midst of a disappointing start shared surface elements with Steve Spurrier's midseason retirement at South Carolina. They were both veteran coaches and iconoclasts, both leaving their teams when the season was seemingly at its worst. Like Spurrier, Ryan knows himself well.

But unlike Spurrier, who up and left and left a job with which he had little emotional attachment, Ryan calculated his move. His goal has always been to leave the job to Gard, who has been coaching under Ryan for most of his life -- 23 of 45 years on Earth. Ryan said that he initially wanted to retire before the season began, but pushed back the timetable when Gard's father became ill with glioblastoma multiforme, a form of cancer. After Glen Gard passed away in October at 72, Ryan and Alvarez decided that the semester change would be a good time to pass interim control to Greg. And so it was that a low-key crowd and a floor full of exhausted players facing final exams unwittingly took part in the last game of a basketball legend -- a non-descript win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Star forward Nigel Hayes sensed something might be going on by the way Ryan looked at him before the game -- he said Ryan had "the saddest look he'd ever had -- but not even Gard was certain that Tuesday's game was Ryan's last.

Ryan is one of the few people who could come up with such a scheme and convince you it's right. That was one of his greatest gifts. Ryan was blessed with a face that always looks incredulous. Before he says a word his expression is telling you you're a numb nuts. It's impossible to say whether Ryan's personality molded his face or vice versa, but he never gave any indication that he cared what anybody else thought. During games he challenged referees with unrivaled theatricality, he benched players for the slightest mistakes, and never felt beholden to media.

Ryan deserved a curtain call in front of a packed Kohl Center after one last Big Ten showdown. His record is unimpeachable. Across 32 years he compiled a 747-233 record that includes four national championships at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. He won seven Big Ten titles at Wisconsin -- four during the regular season and three during the tournament -- while compiling a .717 winning percentage stands as the best in the history of a storied conference. His Badger teams never once finished outside the top four in the Big Ten during the regular season, nor did they ever miss the NCAA Tournament.

Once upon a time, Ryan was criticized for not being able to lead his teams past the second weekend of the Tourney. He squashed that narrative by taking the Badgers to two straight Final Fours, the pinnacle being a squad that fell just short in the final against Duke with the National Player of the Year and the best offense in the KenPom era, and one of the best of all time.

It is an utter disservice to Ryan's legacy that he should shuffle out right after a sleepy game before what is essentially Wisconsin's bye week, but that's exactly what he wanted.


(Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

This is difficult for Wisconsin. Transitions are hard for any school that has had one man in charge for so long, but especially when it's a developmental program with modest talent whose success each season has just one common denominator: The man himself. As he goes, it's natural to wonder if the magic will go with him.

Ryan would scoff at that. He hated superstition, or any suggestion that an outcome was due to anything other than his players and their preparation. Before the Final Four runs, it was commonly suggested that he won in the Big Ten because the league is lenient about physical contact. Last March, Kenny Albert tried to suggest to Ryan that his teams didn't usually try to score so many points. Ryan calmly told him that "people" don't do their homework, and his face, per usual, looked like it might burst into flames.

In 2013, when Wisconsin beat No. 3 Michigan in overtime after tying the game on a halfcourt buzzer beater, a reporter asked Ryan if he has "some kind of magic," as if the Badgers got lucky. Ryan responded with a story about how he banked in his first high school basket, and how his coach told the scorer's table to disallow it because he didn't score the right way. Ryan said that they counted the basket, and implied that the "right way" is bunk and so is magic. When it comes to the little things -- a play or a game, here or there -- the law of averages play themselves out.

Ryan's body of work, on the other hand, can't be considered a fluke. His success came by his principles, by adhering to his offense using players he could shape in its image. He has influenced the state's basketball infrastructure to the point that many Wisconsin high school programs run his system as if to prepare athletes to play for Bo.

Continuity has created a unique sort of psychological torture for Wisconsin fans. Because of the program's modest talent, it has always felt as if success could abandon the program without notice and the school would lose its annual place in the top 25. This season hasn't assuaged those fears. The 2015-16 Badgers are in real danger of missing the NCAA Tournament at 7-5 with losses to Western Illinois, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and in-state rival Marquette.

Wisconsin fans have reason to be concerned. The biggest reason they shouldn't be is Ryan's full-hearted faith. Ryan, with all the incredulity his face can muster, has been backing Gard for years. He seems to struggle with the notion that anyone is murky about the Badgers' future.

Ryan always makes you question what the hell he's thinking. But for a guy who seems unhinged at times, he has fostered an astonishing level of consistency. His plans are atypical, but they're fully-fledged and forward-thinking. He chose to sacrifice a proper send-off to boost the career of the faithful assistant he believes in.

Wisconsin was in fine shape when Ryan took it over, just one season removed from a Final Four under Bennett. Ryan built on his predecessor's success, and eventually surpassed it. He leaves a singular legacy for everyone else to admire, but more importantly to him, he is leaving behind a healthy program and a plan to win.

That's why Ryan can comfortably retire in the middle of a season, and that's why Ryan left his press conference saying "I'll see you down the road" as reporters prepared to write their good byes.