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March 30, 2014

Familial values propel Badgers





ANAHEIM, Calif. - It's a story that can't write itself. One the folks in Hollywood, just an hour north on Interstate-5 from the Honda Center, wouldn't believe.

Here's the plot:

A coach spends his entire life trying to get to a Final Four, but comes up short time after time. Despite his failure, his dad cheers him up by bringing him to witness the event in person each year. Never any questions asked about whether they wanted to go or whether they could make it. Bo Ryan and his father, Butch, never missed a Final Four as fans. Never.

And now, eight month's after Butch's passing, Bo has found his way to his first Final Four as a head coach - on what would have been Butch's 90th birthday, no less.

It's a feeling that can only be described as going to the ballpark for opening day with your dad every year, and then the year you get called up to the majors, your dad not being there to cheer you on. Or to be growing up attending Presidential Inaugurations and the day you take the oath of office, your dad is not there by your side.

It's a feeling Bo had been hiding inside for a majority of the season, but one he felt comfortable enough letting out on Saturday night.

Following Wisconsin's 64-63 overtime-victory over Arizona in the Elite 8, Bo told his team it would have been his dad's 90th birthday and he thanked them for making it a special one. As he opened up to his team, a tear was fighting its way out of the eyes of the 66-year-old head coach.

"He was very close with his dad so to hear him say that shows how much this means to him," Sam Dekker said. "He wanted this so bad for us and we wanted to get this for him and I think he's pretty proud of us and very overjoyed right now."

His rare showing of vulnerability, no matter how momentarily it may have been, shows how tightly knit this year's Wisconsin Badgers are. For Bo was not addressing a team when speaking of his father's birthday, he was addressing family.

"It may sound cliché about how we're a family and how we're always rubbing each other's backs, but this is one of the tightest knit groups I've ever been a part of," Dekker said. "One through sixteen it's just guys that like each other and guys that are going to hang out and never going to get sick of each other. I think that's what you need if you're going to be successful. You have to have that special bond, that special chemistry. I'd go to war for any of these guys."

Moments after clinching their first Final Four of their lives, Badgers players were not thinking about themselves or what this moment meant to them on a personal level. No, that's something a group of players would do - not something family does.

"How amazing is it to hear all the stories about how this is going to be the first Final Four without Butch and how he's been the biggest hit down there, and then on his would've been 90th birthday, we get to go to the Final Four," Ben Brust said. "It just makes it even more special. I'm very proud to be a part of this senior class, to be the first to get coach Ryan to the Final Four."

But there are many coaches who haven't been to the Final Four; numerous stories that would choke up anyone who heard them; and even more senior classes that have built bonds with their coach. This Badgers family views themselves as one unit, and one willing to "go to war for any of these guys" not because they all are good at basketball and practices and games take over their lives, but because of the experiences they have been a part of and the lasting effects they have had.

- - -

The Badgers played a five-game exhibition tour of Canada in August, prior to the regular season. While Wisconsin went 4-1 in those five games, the trip was successful not because of the team's winning percentage, but because of the camaraderie built away from the court.

"I definitely think you can go back to that Canada trip," Brust said of when this team first started to build chemistry. "That helped shape bringing this team together and we've ran with it ever since."

"We spent a lot of time together on that trip," Josh Gasser said. "We were able to be on the road for a full week together, we got to know each other a lot better, and we got to see how good of a team we could be early on."

Bo got one of those feelings on the Canada trip, one he said was best described as, "I just felt something good," that this team could be special. He wanted to push his team as hard as he ever had with his 12 Wisconsin teams that came before because he was not going to let this one not reach its potential.

Less than a month upon their return from Canada, the Badgers were faced with the difficult and daunting task of supporting their head coach at his father's funeral. For a coach who had done so much for them, there was never any doubt in the players' minds they were going to be there for him.

"That was a special trip we had, just seeing him and having us be there for him in tough times," Gasser recalled. "He's done so much for us on and off the court in developing us, so we definitely thought we deserved to give back something. We definitely wanted to do something for him to make him happy through tough times and what better way than to win and go to the Final Four."

Seeing their coach in a fragile and vulnerable state was the beginning of a special relationship between Bo and his team.

At the same time Bo lost his father, he gained a family. He became the father of 16 young men who had seen him at his lowest and wanted to be the ones to take him to his highest.

Every time the Badgers step out onto the court and Bo gets ready to lay into any referee who dare call a foul against one of his family members, it's a family affair and one that makes playing and winning such a fun thing for this group to do.

"It's fun to be out there on the floor when you have a chance to play with guys who you care about and guys who care about you," Brust said. "I think each and every one of us feels that way and it makes it that much more satisfying to be able to go to the Final Four with teammates that you really care about."

- - -

Even as the oldest coach in the Big Ten, Bo, 66, has been able to connect with his players on a level most coaches dream about. Whether it's current freshman Bronson Koenig feeling comfortable enough with Bo that during his recruitment he would sometimes call to ask for Bo's opinion or advice on something that may not have even pertained to basketball. Or whether it's Brust, a senior, talking about how Bo has taught him when to be serious and when it's okay to joke around. Sean Miller may call Arizona "A Players' Program," but it's Bo who has demonstrated where the real players' program calls home.

His secret is a trick his father taught him, to never think about yourself and to never make your situation bigger than the kid's. It's all about bringing joy and happiness to the kids. That's the real victory.

"He was always about the kids that he helped mentor growing up, and you know, that's why I do it," Bo said of what winning on his dad's birthday meant to him. "To be able to see the faces of these guys, to see the genuine excitement. I can remember some of the great teams that he had of kids and their first championships and how they acted and just the joy. These guys have had some others, but that's all I wanted to see."

And while his antics may not make sense, and his stories of growing up on the tough streets of Chester, Pa. may get redundant after a while, the bottom line is Bo comes from a special breed.

One started by his father, Butch.


For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow Zack on Twitter.


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