My first encounter with Bo Ryan was on my first visit to Madison. I drove up to the campus with my dad early one morning to see what the school had to offer, and it was my first visit to any college campus due to the fact I was not a heavily recruited player. I had maybe one or two scholarship offers at that point from small schools in Illinois. Howard Moore met my dad and I right in front of the Kohl Center and then proceeded to take us around campus, and on a tour through the basketball facilities. Once that was finished, I walked into Coach Ryan’s office and saw him sitting there with his wife, Kelly. I shook his hand then sat down on the couch in his office and we began our meeting. He talked about the school, the basketball program, the tradition, the football team, the academics, etc… I was so nervous I could barely speak. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t say more than 10 words during the entire hour I was in there, so my dad did most of the talking (as he usually does). After that hour, I shook his hand and went to walk out of the room. That’s when I heard the most subtle, yet exciting thing I had heard to that point in my life. “Oh, just so we are clear, you have a scholarship offer from the University of Wisconsin if you want it.” I turned to my dad and asked if I could commit on the spot, and if it had not been for my mom not being there, I probably would have. Instead I waited a few weeks to play hard to get (I’m obviously kidding).
I’m gonna be completely honest – My first few years with Coach Ryan didn’t go well. I felt like he and I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I was too immature to see how he was becoming one of the most important figures in my development as a player, but more importantly as a man. He was harsh on me. He yelled at me, benched me, told me I looked like I was sleeping all the time, told me to just go sit down during practice, told me I wasn’t allowed to shoot unless there was 5 seconds or less on the shot clock. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what he was doing was getting the most he could out of me. It got to the point where I didn’t want to prove anything to anyone else but him. I stayed after practices and worked on my game. I shot until my arms hurt. I busted my ass in the weight room. All of it to prove to Coach Ryan that I was better than I felt he was giving me credit for.
Looking back on it, I know now that Coach Ryan knew what I was capable of becoming. I see so many different instances now that were signals of him understanding what he had in me. One time in particular was during a summer practice before my junior year. He pulled me aside and asked, “You wouldn’t leave this school early, would you?” I didn’t think anything of it at the time, and I’m not sure if he would even recall that, but it stuck out to me because I hadn’t even played a truly meaningful minute of basketball for Wisconsin at that point. I said I wouldn’t, and I meant it when I had the opportunity to leave Wisconsin a year early. It was even more evident when he told me after my junior year that if I stayed and worked hard that summer our team would take the program to a whole different level, and that I would be in consideration for National Player of the Year. He was right again.
The most important thing that Bo ever passed on to me were the lessons I learned through the game of basketball. He taught me how to work with and rely on other people when things weren’t going my way. He taught me the concept of moving on and not letting one bad thing spiral into many bad things. He taught me what it takes to achieve what I want. He taught me to be great at all the things that don’t take any skill. The fire and passion that everyone saw on the sidelines during the games was permanent in his personality. It was evident in every practice, shoot around, film session, and scouting report. He passed that approach to basketball on to me and countless other players.
Without Bo taking a chance on that tall white kid from suburban Illinois, I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to attend the best University in the country. I wouldn’t have met some of my best friends. I wouldn’t have gone to back-to-back Final Fours. The whole complexion of my life would be completely different. I can’t imagine taking an alternate path to get to where I am right now. If not for Coach Ryan, I don’t know where I would be, but I can assure you this: It would not be any better. He took in an immature kid that very few people wanted, and in nothing short of a modern miracle, turned him into a man ready to face the future. It is impossible to count the number of people who have a story to tell about Coach Ryan. I’m only capable of telling my own, but right now I’m sure I speak for everyone. Thank you, Bo.