Bo Ryan’s Coaching Legacy

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan yells out at his team during the first half of their Midwest Regional NCAA second round basketball game against UNLV in Chicago, Sunday, March 18, 2007. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)
(AP Photo/Brian Kersey)

Editor’s Note 6/29/15: Bo Ryan has announced that he will retire at the end of the 2015-2016 season. The long-term future for Bucky, unfortunately, looks a little less bright. In his written statement, Bo states that he hopes associate head coach Greg Gard succeeds him. Gard has been an assistant coach for Ryan during the past twenty years, since his three DIII championships and through the present season. Gard has helped establish Bo Ryan as Coach Wisconsin. Hopefully, Coach Gard will carry on the torch of leading UW’s Basketball team to consistent excellence in the years to come. We’ll miss you Bo. [This article was originally posted on April 20, 2015.]

Bo Ryan: Coach Wisconsin’s Legacy in the Era of Living Legends

In an age of established basketball powerhouses, where a University’s prestige is highly correlated with NCAA tournament success, Bo Ryan is exceeding expectations at an incredible rate. This chart sums up Wisconsin’s overachievements under Bo’s leadership over the past six years.

UW Basketball: AP Poll Rank
Preseason Postseason
2015 3 2
2014 20 4
2013 23 22
2012 15 12
2011 Unranked 15
2010 Unranked 24

Bo’s success with Bucky has been phenomenal: Ryan has lead the Badgers to FOURTEEN consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and SEVEN Sweet Sixteens. The Badgers have finished the season with an improved ranking (comparing postseason AP poll to preseason AP poll) in eleven of his fourteen years. Bo has been overachieving at UW-Madison for fourteen, but for him, exceeding expectations was nothing new.

Bo’s dominance began in the 90’s, when he secured four DIII national championships during his tenure as coach of UW Platteville, and had the highest winning percentage of any NCAA coach across all divisions (.908: 266-26). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the last twelve years, half of the DIII champions have hailed from Wisconsin. Bo’s domination of DIII as Coach Wisconsin not only aided in defining Bo’s legacy, but established the cheese-head state as the nation’s capital for DIII hoops.

After a short two year stint at UWM, Bo began his fourteen years as coach by ending a draught. In his first year as coach, the Badgers earned a share of the BIG 10 title for the first time in 55 years.

Since then, the Badgers have exceeded a winning percentage of .600 every single year, with an overall .905 winning percentage at home. But do these numbers make Bo an all-time great?

Bo Ryan basketball has never been called sexy. The reason is most likely a result of the Badger’s incredibly slow pace of play, which has ranked in the bottom 10% in the league every single year he has coached[1]. I doubt Bo would be shocked to hear that. Editorials have pinned him as the “coach of 1915” mainly because Wisconsin runs a slow, methodical offense. But when Coach Bo can turn non-McDonald’s All Americans into All-tournament players, you know he’s doing something special. Steady development wins the race. A slow offense may not be in style, but winning always is.

A final fact that points at Bo’s undervalued “stock”: he is the only coach not in the top six highest paid in the NCAA to have lead his team to back-to-back final fours, and has achieved these benchmarks without a single one and done player. In fact, the sixth highest paid coach (Tom Izzo) still earns a salary of more than 50% of Bo’s. We are getting incredible value for our dollar, and Bo has already signed a contract through the 2018-2019 season.

Bo’s Place Among the Living Legends

So where does Bo rank among the all-time greats? Does he deserve a place in the College Basketball Hall of Fame? In terms of postseason success, we can consider a chart utilized by, which calculates a statistic known as “Wins above expected”. This measure calculates how much a team (and coach) outperforms expectations.

Wins Above Expected = Wins in the tournament – Expected wins.

For instance, a #1 seed (on average) wins 3.3 games in a given NCAA tournament. The Badgers’ five victories signifies a 5-3.3=1.7 win total (above expected). Following two consecutive NCAA tournaments where the Badgers have outperformed expectations (last year’s WAE equaled 1.6), Bo Ryan is now ranked 22nd all-time in NCAA tournament wins above expected.

Guess where Tom Izzo, Coach Calipari, and Coach K. rank? All in the top six all time. That is, their teams outperform their expected win totals expected by their seeding.

Coach Ryan, ranked as the 22nd most “over-performing” coach of all time, continues to solidify his legacy. Yet, truly appreciating his prowess is difficult, simply because of the era he coaches in. Two-thirds of the 21 coaches ahead of him on this list are active or have retired/moved to the NBA in the past three years, evidence that we are living in the Golden Age of college coaching legends.

This year’s biggest overachiever was Michigan State: 4 wins – .9 wins (expected of a 7 seed) = 3.1 wins above expected. The most under-performing team? A tie Between Iowa State and Baylor: the big twelve is awful. In large part, this is explained by the Big 12’s lack of coaching juggernauts.

Before this year’s NCAA basketball season began, ESPN staff writers collected their opinions and produced a ranking of the 50 best coaches in College Hoops. Each of the four coaches to lead their teams to the final four were in the TOP 7. Bo Ryan was listed as #7, with Cal, Izzo, and Coach K earning #2-#4.

Excluding Jim Boeheim (sanctions are b***h), ten of ESPN’s top 16 coaches made this year’s sweet sixteen. Coaching prowess seems to be highly correlated with postseason success. So how about that awful/underperforming Big 12? The BIG 12 conference only had one coach ranked in the top 30. Two three seeds losing in the first round. That conference is bad, mmmk.

What have we learned?

With each subsequent year of outperforming expectations, the legacy of Coach Bo will only continue to grow. The Badgers are ranked 25 by ESPN’s “way too early” preseason rankings. I see a top 24 AP ranking in my crystal ball.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this year’s March Madness? A quality coach is more important than a handful of one and dones. We don’t need Diamond Stone to excel. Thanks to Bo, the future for Bucky is bright.


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