INDIANAPOLIS - Bo Ryan remembers being nervous only once on a basketball court - 1965, Palestra, first game of the state tournament, his Chester High team unbeaten. The point guard, he led the team onto the court for warmups. He would throw the ball up on the board and then everybody would tap it. You remember the drill. This being Chester, the last guy would dunk it.
"I started to dribble the ball out of the tunnel and there's 9,000 in the Palestra," Ryan remembered. "I was there for games as a kid, watching Villanova, St. Joe's. The noise level was so high, I almost had a turnover. You know how I am about turnovers. I thought I was going to miss the backboard when I tossed it up. I'm thinking, 'Hit the backboard.' That is a true story. I was sweating missing the backboard."
He hit the backboard. A half-century later, that old Chester High point guard insists he won't be nervous tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium. He'll be doing what he has done 967 times before - coach a college basketball game.
Like Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Wisconsin's Ryan will be going for his fifth NCAA championship. Only, unlike Coach K's, nobody noticed Bo's first four.
The man from Chester coached high schools and was an assistant at Wisconsin. He got the head job at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, where he won his four championships. Two of his championship teams were unbeaten. The four title teams were a combined 119-5.
The difference between then and now?
"Training-table meal was hot dogs," Ryan said. "The morning of the game, I had a cream doughnut and a diet pop. Now we have the best: French toast, pancakes, eggs, omelettes . . . I think there was a stringer from the Madison paper that actually showed up and covered the game. So you ask me what it was like. It wasn't like this."
Ryan's coaching life parallels John Chaney's. It was not until his early 50s that he got a chance at the bigger time. First, it was 2 years at UW Milwaukee and then to the state university in Madison.
Wisconsin has been in the Big Ten's top four every one of his seasons, a 14-year streak that had never been accomplished. Before Bo, the Badgers had nine NCAA Tournament wins in 63 years. With Bo, the Badgers are 14-for-14 into the NCAA with 25 wins, consecutive Final Fours and a chance to win the last game of the season. What if?
"Well, it's just like in '91 when Platteville won the national championship," Ryan said. "The first thing I did is I looked at the crowd because I wanted to see how happy everybody else was, to see how happy the players were. This team affects a lot of people and their emotions . . . That's what I get a thrill out of, seeing how success can affect not only the players but the people that have helped them get to that point, who drove them to their practices, who helped them go to camps in the summer, who helped them understand the value of an education."
Ryan's basketball and life values have never changed. It is just that he has been in the game so long that it has all come full circle and Bo is in vogue again. Ryan seems so old school that you lose sight of how with these times he really is. If he wasn't the first coach to talk about the importance of points per possession, he was one of the first. Fewest turnovers and fewest personal fouls, a Wisconsin staple, worked 50 years ago and work today.
Now, give him superior athletes with great skill like his front line of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes and it should be no shock that Bo's team was the first to take down Kentucky, just a week after his team put on an offensive display for the ages to beat Arizona. That would be the No. 1 overall seed and No. 5 overall in this tournament. For an encore, Wisconsin - the No. 4 overall seed - gets No. 3 overall Duke, the gold standard for a quarter century.
Ryan has a system, but he coaches to his talent. The Badgers are the nation's most efficient offensive team because Ryan's players are so versatile and given so much freedom. They create so many mismatches that it has become a parlor game to guess which poor defender the Badgers are going to isolate with their best players.
"People can say what they want about we don't have X-number of All-Americans, we don't have this," Ryan said. "I've never in life looked at what you don't have. I've always looked at what we do have and what can we do with it."
That last sentence could be Ryan's motto. It has always been his way, even before he had a way.
He was recruited by the Philly Catholic schools. He wasn't leaving Chester.
"I played Biddy League and played at the Y and the Boys Club with all these guys that were good friends from the time you were 8, 9 years old so I went to Chester High for the obvious reason - stick with my friends, try to win a state championship," Ryan said.
His final Chester team was 25-0 before losing in the state quarterfinals to Steelton Highspire, 84-82, in overtime. He has not gotten over the game yet. Nor has he forgotten the bigger lessons on the way.
"My parents had always instilled the educational part at home, but also from the athletic standpoint, my dad would take me to Chester games when I was 5, 6, 7 on up," Ryan said.
Butch Ryan came to the Final Four every year with Bo. He did not live long enough to see Bo coach in the dome version of the Final Four, passing away in 2013. The son has not forgotten where he came from.
"To me, Chester was everything," Ryan said.
On Martin Luther King Day, he asks his team where King did his divinity work. He tells them Crozer Theological Seminary. Now, whenever he asks anything where a place is the required answer, their response is always the same: Chester.
"In Chester, I learned so much about competition and getting along because it was a very diverse city and high school," Ryan said. "I'm glad I grew up in an environment like that."
He was the only white starter on the 1965 Clippers team.
"That's what they tell me, but I never knew that I was different," Ryan said. "I did not know and did not care."