Dick Bennett’s role in building the Wisconsin basketball program cannot be overlooked. This is a program that was a Big Ten doormat for nearly a half-century before he brought the Badgers back to prominence with several NCAA Tournament appearances culminating in a run to the 2000 Final Four. If Bennett gets credit for laying the program’s foundation, though, then Bo Ryan came to Madison and made it a seven-figure property in a wealthy neighborhood. During his 14 seasons at the helm, Wisconsin became an NCAA Tournament fixture. His teams rarely had a surplus of NBA-caliber players, yet they still went on an unfathomable conference run where the Badgers never finished lower than fourth place in the Big Ten regular season. Much has already been discussed about his decision to step down as head coach 12 games into the season, but this is not the space for that debate. Instead, this post is meant to look at his career as program-builder during his time in Madison.
If we look at records through the decades, Wisconsin notched a 111-127 overall mark in the 1960s, a 108-145 mark in the 1970s, and a 118-166 record in the 1980s. With the arrival of Bennett in the 1990s, that mark improved to 157-142. Since Ryan took over the helm of the program in 2001, however, the Badgers’ overall record has been 364-130. He also made the NCAA Tournament every year he was on the sideline in Madison, and this marked improvement wasn’t necessarily because he was the slickest salesman on the recruiting trail. Wisconsin brought in the occasional elite prep star like Brian Butch or Sam Dekker, but for every blue-chipper he lured to his program, there were two or three versions of Mike Bruesewitz or Josh Gasser also on board — players of somewhat lesser talent who were nevertheless perfect fits for his system.
All that winning and consistency for his first 12 seasons were great, but everything came to a crescendo during the last two campaigns. Led by National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and a veteran cast surrounding him, Wisconsin went to consecutive Final Fours, put together a come-from-behind Final Four win over perhaps the most dominant regular season team in two decades, and swept both Big Ten championships last season. Despite the Badgers’ somewhat rocky start this year and his surprising departure, it’s difficult to argue that Ryan didn’t go out on top. The program is in great position for sustainable success, and Ryan should get the majority of the credit for developing the Badgers’ culture that facilitates it.