Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan Is A Rare Product of Division III

By Mark Whicker |The Daily Breeze | March 27, 2015


John Moore has coached basketball at Westmont College for 22 years.

On Tuesday, he was on the bench when Westmont lost the NAIA championship to Dalton (Ga.) State. On Thursday he was teaching his kinesiology class.

He, and hundreds like him, are trapped in a coaching caste system. They do not go from Division III to Division II to the big time. In order to get there, you work as a video coordinator, and then as an assistant, and then maybe you become an assistant somewhere else. Those who run games while they sit on gymnasium benches rarely get to do that in arena folding chairs. The court is 94 feet by 50, both places.

“Coaching is teaching and teaching is coaching,” Moore said Friday. “There are so many coaches on this level — Kenny Ammann at Concordia-Irvine, Greg Kamansky at Cal Poly Pomona — who would do a great job up there.

“For me? That ship has sailed.”

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Today, most of those coaches will watch the West Regional final at Staples Center. Their flagbearer is Bo Ryan, who coaches Wisconsin.

Ryan won four NCAA Division III championships at Wisconsin-Platteville. It was the life he wanted. He was there for 15 years, enough to get vested in the state retirement system. Eventually he yearned for a challenge, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a classic “mid-major,” gave it to him.

From there he went to Wisconsin, where he runs the same drills, the same offense and the same defense he did at Platteville, primarily with Wisconsin-born players. He has been there 14 years and made 14 NCAA tournaments, and last year the Badgers lost to Kentucky in the Final Four semifinals, at the buzzer.

“And the guys I coached against in Division III could easily outcoach 90 percent of the guys in Division I,” Ryan said.

The fact that Pomona-Pitzer’s coach used to be Gregg Popovich has not overturned the caste system. When people begin to pick apart all the things that are wrong with Division I basketball, start there.

“On that level you develop players,” said Greg Gard, who played for Ryan at Platteville and is his assistant at Wisconsin. “We always had good juniors and seniors who got better.”

“Platteville was a great engineering school,” Ryan said. “We didn’t give athletic scholarships. I’d look for the best players who wanted to be engineers. Over a two-year period we had 10 starters, and seven of them turned out to be civil engineers. Now they’d have to say things two or three times, so I could understand, but. …”

The problem is that an athletic director would have to have a firm spine to hire someone without a recognizable name, and there are not many of those. The boosters would scratch their heads, the media would scoff, and the AAU coaches would tell their kids not to take a chance on such a guy.

“A lot of people don’t realize that John Wooden coached Indiana State when that was an NAIA school, and he was the first coach to refuse to play in an NAIA tournament that wasn’t desegregated,” Moore said.

That said, not all small-college coaches are languishing as they await the call.

Ryan sounded nostalgic for the gym life on Friday.

“You’re not sitting in a tower somewhere,” Ryan said. “You know all the faculty, you know the students. How many Division I coaches know any of the teachers?”

“There was a purity about it,” Gard said, “even though I made no money my first year working there. But at least it wasn’t hard to do my income tax.”

When Westmont upended Hope International in the NAIA semifinals, he called home. His wife Rachel asked if he’d gone through all his texts.

“Look at the one from your daughter,” Rachel said.

He did, and learned that Jessie had been accepted at UCLA.

“So that’s what I’m going to remember from that tournament,” he said.

Moore still plays ball three times a week, at 6 a.m. In doing so he realized Sean Harman could be a player. His center, Daniel Curlin, is an Australian who met a touring Westmont student at home, wound up marrying her, and turned down better hoop opportunities to follow her to Westmont.

“Sometimes in recruiting, players just come to us,” he said.

As he spoke, the business of basketball was proceeding, three time zones away. St. John’s was deciding Steve Lavin shouldn’t be its coach anymore, despite an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Rachel Moore is Lavin’s sister. She and John will follow the coaching search, from a safe place.

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