IN THE next 800 words, you're going to meet my new favorite coach. But first you have to guess who he is.
Hint No. 1: Nobody in any division of college basketball won a higher percentage of his games (.908) in the '90s than he did.
Hint No. 2: Now he's got the highest winning percentage (.706) in Big Ten games of any coach in league history—minimum five years—and, yep, that includes Bobby Freakin' Knight.
Hint No. 3: If you stood him next to North Carolina's Roy Williams, you'd be looking at the two guys who have the highest winning percentages among coaches with more than 500 wins. Yet people would mob Williams for his autograph—and ask to borrow this guy's Sharpie.
Who is he? Wisconsin's Bo Ryan.
I swear, you've never met anybody like him. He could talk the freckles off Opie. He once persuaded an engaged woman into calling off her wedding and marrying him instead. Thirty-two years later she's still convinced. And he can flat coach. With his patented Swing offense and his obsession with detail, he could win 20 games a year with five large parking meters. He's the most unheralded winning machine in the country and headmaster of the No. 2--ranked Badgers.
But that's not why he's my new favorite.
He's not a walking haircut, with every word he utters scripted by some VP of Athletic Communications. And he's not some wonder kid groomed under Legend A to replace Legend B and become Legend C. Ryan has socks older than Billy Donovan.
This is a guy who was a stateside Army MP during the Vietnam War, breaking up fights in Augusta, Ga., bars. "It was always the same," says Ryan, 59. "One group was saying 'great taste' and the other 'less filling.'" He also escorted convicted felons to Leavenworth. Before every trip, he'd slap a set of handcuffs on his own wrist and on the inmate's, wrinkle up his face like Christopher Walken and go, "There's a reason they picked me, y'know. I won the platoon pistol-shooting championship." That was true. What he didn't mention was that the .45 in his holster was empty.
Growing up in Chester, Pa., Ryan was so hyper that his mom put him in first grade a year early because he was driving her nuts. At Chester High, he was the only white guy on the basketball team his senior year. He still has the scar Reggie Jackson's football cleats left on him in a game against Cheltenham High. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of '60s and '70s R&B. Can name you the song, artist and flip side of any Motown record, usually in five notes or less. You think recruits' moms don't like him?
But that's not why he's my new favorite.
This is a guy who hasn't just paid his dues, he's paid the whole neighborhood's. He didn't get his chance in the big time until he was 53, gold-watch time for a lot of guys. Before Wisconsin hired him in 2001, Ryan spent a year as an assistant at College of Racine (Wis.), eight years as a Badgers assistant, 15 at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville—where he won four national championships—and two at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. If there were a Wisconsin-Curdville, he'd have coached there.
The man's been passed by more often than an I-80 rest stop. Wisconsin passed over him for guys like Stu Jackson and Stan Van Gundy—who went on to win a combined 41% of their Big Ten games. All Ryan has done is win 71%. In the 63 years BB (Before Bo), Wisconsin went to the NCAAs seven times. AB? Five, with number six coming up.
This guy is loyal. In 1974 he coached the baseball team at bankrupt Racine for free because he didn't want to bail on his players. And it wasn't like he could afford it. At Platteville he was once so poor, he just missed qualifying for a free-lunch program for his five kids.
He's honest, too—never been rung up by the NCAA. He's a guy who can work a hall full of boosters like a Roomba. And twice as cleanly.
But that's not why Bo Ryan is my new favorite.
He's my new favorite because he has hammered out the sweetest setup in husband history. His wife of 32 years, Kelly (the one he talked out of marrying someone else), has agreed to a deal. Bo has to do no dishes, no cooking, no mowing, no cleaning, no vacuuming, no lightbulb-changing, no spider killing—nothing, "except win basketball games," she says. "As long as he keeps winning basketball games, he doesn't have to do anything around the house."
O.K., pushing around prisoners is one thing, but wives? Now that's impressive.
TALK BACK If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ryan spent eight years as a Wisconsin assistant, 15 at Wisconsin-Platteville and two at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. If there were a Wisconsin-Curdville, he'd have coached there.
RIFFS of REILLY
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PETER READ MILLER