This article was originally published on February 8, 2007.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Bo Ryan is the son of a Chester pipefitter named Butch. So it's no surprise that a fire, one as red as his team's road uniforms, burns in the belly of the University of Wisconsin's basketball coach.
"My dad's a tough guy," Ryan said earlier this week as his fourth-ranked Badgers prepared for last night's game at Penn State. "He never finished high school. They kicked him out of St. James [High] because when a priest asked him if he knew the Apostles' Creed, he said, 'Can you hum a few bars?' "
Butch Ryan, now 83, passed that blue-collar, riverfront atty-tood down to his son.
Bo Ryan has a silver tongue and hair to match. He wears expensive suits and earns more in a year than his father did in a lifetime. He lives in a beautiful home close to a lake and drives a luxury car. He's always on TV and might be the most popular coach in Wisconsin since Vince Lombardi.
But that Pat Riley exterior can't obscure his "Life of Riley" roots.
William "Bo" Ryan grew up poor and tough in lower Delaware County. That's evident when, eyes aglow, hands on hip, shiny loafers digging into the hardwood, he parries with officials, or upbraids a player. He stomps. He demands. He argues. He fights.
He always fights.
When Ryan was 10, he wanted a camera. Butch Ryan said there was no money in the budget. But the boy fought back. He saw a magazine ad that promised prizes, including a camera, to youngsters who could sell lots of greeting cards.
"I went for it," he said. "I had this five- or six-block area [in Chester's Bridgewater Farms development] and I knocked on every door," he said. "I didn't miss one. If there was no one home, I'd go back and try again. And if they weren't there then, I'd keep coming back until they were."
Ryan peddled the cards until he got the camera. Forty-nine years later, the big picture hasn't changed much. He's still fighting and selling relentlessly.
"You've got to sell," he said, "because a lot of times you're a perfect stranger trying to convince somebody to do something they might not want to do. If I wasn't a coach, I'd probably be a salesman. I've got to have that competition."
Now Ryan sells Badger basketball - to recruits, to his players, to boosters, to the media, to the nation. With that slick exterior abetted by street smarts, he has transformed Wisconsin, once an off-the-rack program, into one of the hottest items on college basketball's shelf.
His teams have averaged better than 22 wins a season in his nearly seven years in Madison. They've never missed the NCAA tournament. His in-conference winning percentage of .701 is the best ever for any Big Ten coach.
After a 71-58 victory over Penn State last night, the Badgers are 23-2, 9-1, good for first place in the Big Ten. Earlier this season, they ran off a 17-game winning streak and climbed to No. 2 in the national rankings, both school records.
"We're a very experienced team," he said. "We've got a lot of guys who have been through the wars and they know what it takes to compete in this league. You can't underestimate the importance of those things."
A point guard - and Chester High's only white player in the mid-1960s - Ryan developed his love of the game during awestruck visits to the Palestra with his father and in pickup games with some of the city's best collegiate players on a Sun Oil court near his home.
"My dad knew the guy who took care of the facility so he would let me in," Ryan recalled. "I remember seeing [Philadelphia University coach] Herbie Magee there. He'd take the inbounds pass, turn and shoot. Didn't matter where he was, he'd make it. I used to pray that there would only be nine guys there so I could play."
Back then, Philadelphia - and most other cities - had its own style of play. Ryan would watch teams come into the Palestra with a Midwest style or a New York style or a West Coast style. He tried to absorb them all.
Those regional distinctions, said Ryan, who has won 134 games at Wisconsin despite a recruiting base that seldom stretches beyond the state, have vanished in the subsequent decades.
"The game's a real melting pot now," he said. "All these kids play AAU ball. They and their coaches see so much basketball on TV and on DVDs that they all play alike. A lot of the regional separations have disappeared."
But somehow this Philly-coach-in-waiting landed deep in the Midwest. The improbable journey that propelled Ryan from Chester to Madison - "two square miles of craziness surrounded by reality," is how he characterizes his new hometown - began after he played collegiately at Wilkes College and served as an Army MP at a military jail in Georgia, where his natural salesmanship again came in handy.
"I was pretty good at talking people out of trouble," he said.
While a Villanova graduate student, he accepted a job as an assistant at the University of Racine in Wisconsin. Using that on his resume, he landed his first head job in 1974 at Sun Valley High, where he took a team with no future college players to its first state tournament.
When Bill Cofield, who had noticed Ryan at Racine, got the Wisconsin job, he hired the 29-year-old as an assistant. Ryan learned quickly. Very quickly. He soon married Cofield's secretary.
After eight years there, Ryan was contacted by a onetime Badgers football aide who was now the athletic director at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. He offered him the head job. "Talk about culture shock for a guy from Chester," said Ryan.
He acclimated well. In 16 Platteville seasons, Ryan won 82 percent of his games and four national titles. Eventually, Division I Wisconsin-Milwaukee hired him away, and a year later, when Dick Bennett resigned two games into the Badgers' 2000-01 season, Ryan got the Wisconsin position.
"A lot of people are just finding about Bo, but he's been one of the country's best coaches for a long time," said former Purdue coach Gene Keady. "His teams play with remarkable intensity and discipline."
This year's Badgers - whose only losses were a shocker to Missouri State in November, and at Indiana last week - play a style that would have pleased all those Philly coaches Ryan idolized as a kid. ("I lived right across the street from Jack McKinney," he gushed.)
The veteran-laden team plays in-your-jersey defense, yielding opponents just 58.3 points a game and a shooting percentage of 39.3. The Badgers rebound well (seven more than opponents per game), create turnovers (15 a game), and are efficient on offense.
"A lot of that has to do with our experience, especially on defense," said Ryan. "The more you play together, the more you learn to help and to trust your teammates."
It also helps that he has considerable upper-class talent. Senior guard Kammron Taylor (13.6 ppg.) and 6-11 junior center Brian Butch (9.6 ppg., 6.1 rebounds per game) are threats at either end of the court.
And senior Alando Tucker, a slashing, 6-6 forward who is averaging 19.4 points and five rebounds a game, might be the Big Ten's best player.
"As a freshman, he was an active rebounder, but he's grown into an outstanding offensive player," said Ryan. "He knows how to create space for himself. He's also one of the best leaders I've ever been around. He lets these other guys know what to expect when, like now, you get into the dog days of a Big Ten schedule. It can be tough if you aren't prepared."
And, as America is now finding out, Bo knows tough.