Maybe it’s an unfair list. The NCAA Tournament’s unpredictability makes it difficult to judge a coach based on his postseason successes.
This year we saw Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils upset in their opener. VCU’s Shaka Smart, considered one of the bright young coaches in the game, also suffered a first-game upset. Kansas’ Bill Self and North Carolina’s Roy Williams’ didn’t make it past the first weekend.
Reaching the Final Four is even more difficult and has more unknowns. Longtime Temple coach John Chaney won 741 games, but never reached the Final Four. The same can be said for Missouri’s Norm Stewart (731 wins), Oregon State’s Ralph Miller (674) and Purdue’s Gene Keady (550 wins).
Bo Ryan seemed headed toward carrying that dubious label. He had taken Wisconsin to the NCAA Tournament in every one of his 13 seasons, but had never gotten over the Final Four hump. He reached five Sweet 16s, advancing to the Elite Eight once, going into this season.
At 66, Ryan seemed to be running out of chances but has finally reached the coveted destination. His Badgers won the West Regional and are set to face Kentucky, the eighth seed from the Midwest, in the second semifinal game Saturday night at AT&T Stadium.
“I look out there at our profession and think about all those coaches that haven’t had a chance to coach in the Final Four, who are as bright and as sharp and as tough and as good a mentor as anybody,” Ryan said. “I’m the same person I was three weeks ago, a month ago. So for me, it’s not like maybe what you think it is to me because of how I got into the profession as a teacher first in junior high school and then they gave me a coaching job.
“So for me, I want you to put it on the players, have it be about them. But I’m very happy to be here and roam the sidelines.”
Ryan, like all the Final Four-less coaches mentioned, is as respected as anyone in the game. And a Final Four on his résumé shouldn’t change that.
Just ask Kentucky coach John Calipari, who has reached his fifth Final Four.
“We coaches do not look at this the way you all look at this,” Calipari said. “We just don’t. Bo just said it, do you know how many coaches are out there that maybe are not at the school that would help them get there? Or coaches who took teams to an Elite Eight, which is like winning a national title at the school they were at?
“I don’t think we evaluate any coach based on Final Fours or national titles. We just know who can coach, who is a good guy, who gets their teams better, who cares about kids. We know those guys. If they made it to a Final Four, great. If they didn’t, that didn’t change my opinion of them.”
Still, Final Fours and national championships are what most remember coaches and teams for. It’s college basketball’s Super Bowl or World Series and it’s something that helps justify how good somebody like Ryan has been at his job.
“Coach Ryan gets up and comes to practice and teaches us,” senior guard Ben Brust said. “He just wants to help the young men that he has learn the game of basketball and do it the right way. We’re proud to be here representing the University of Wisconsin and ready to go after it.”
For Ryan, winning a championship would cap a tremendous coaching career. He worked his way up the ladder, spending his early days in the high school ranks before getting an assistant coaching job on the Wisconsin staff.
Ryan landed his first head coaching job in 1984 at Wisconsin-Platteville, an NAIA school at the time that became a Division III school, and won four national championships in 15 seasons.
After two years at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Ryan caught his break to become the head coach at Wisconsin before the 2001-02 season.
“It was the shortest conversation of all time,” Ryan said of his hiring.
The athletic director at the time, Pat Richter, simply asked Ryan if he was ready to take the job.
“I said, ‘You know I’m ready,’ ” Ryan said. “And that was it.”
Now, after 30 years as a collegiate head coach, he’s finally reached the ultimate stage.