Column

Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan took a winding road to Indianapolis

Which coach in the college basketball final is going for his fifth NCAA title? Both of them

A coach in his late 60s is going to win his fifth NCAA title Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

It's either going to be "Coach K" or "Coach R."

Yeah, the title game that few expected is loaded with surprises. Sorry if Kentucky's shocking defeat on Saturday night rearranged your Final Four furniture.

Did you know Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski (68) is actually older than Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan (67)?

Everyone in Hoopville is familiar with Krzyzewski's star-spangled career that began, as a player, under Bob Knight at Army.

Krzyzewski's success has played out on the big stage, on national television, with ivory-tinkled narrative provided by Jim Nantz.

We know Coach K is probably the second-greatest coach after UCLA's John Wooden.

A win Monday would be the fifth title for Krzyzewski, which would put him halfway to Wooden's record 10.

We know Coach K as well as any American coach. We know his wife is "Mickie" and that he coached the U.S. Olympic team and some of the college's greatest players: Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, Elton Brand. He calls his adult players "my kids" and has a biting, self-deprecating sense of humor.

Krzyzewski has been a spell-check challenge since he took over at Duke in 1980 and started taking on North Carolina's Dean Smith.

We know Coach K has advanced to 12 Final Fours and won national titles in 1991, 1992, 2001 and 2010.

Through all that time, another coach was building a tremendous, subterranean career on a local cable-outlet station.

People still may not know that Bo Ryan has won four NCAA titles. He won one, in fact, in 1991, the same year Duke did.

Ryan said Sunday he believed the training table meal was hot dogs.

"I think there was a stringer — one stringer — from the Madison paper that actually showed up and covered the game," he said.

It irks Ryan that the gap between divisions in the NCAA is perceived to be as wide as the continental divide.

Few people considered this week, as John Calipari's Kentucky team was chasing a perfect season, that there was one coach in the Final Four who had already done it.

Ryan won four NCAA Division III titles at University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Two were perfect seasons.

His 1994-95 team went 31-0 and his 1997-98 team went 30-0.

As Calipari was trying to explain the pressures of navigating Kentucky to this year's 38-0 start, Ryan was receiving text messages from former players.

Ryan said the gist was this: "Aren't those people smart enough to know there's been other undefeated teams in men's basketball?"

Ryan said there was no need to reply.

"No," Ryan said this week. "They're not smart enough.… They don't feel it's relevant in this Division 1 environment."

Comparing the journeys of Wisconsin-Platteville and Kentucky, of course, is apples and oranges.

Yet, aren't they in the same coaching-tree fruit family?

We know now that two great coaches can get to the same game from completely different access roads.

Ryan took the road less traveled, yet it still ended here, in Indianapolis, with a chance to bring home Wisconsin's first NCAA title since 1941.

Krzyzewski was a superstar in his mid 50s, before Ryan landed his first major-level job.

Few probably know that Ryan, not Krzyzewski, was the most winning NCAA coach of the 1990s. He went 352-76 in his 15 seasons at Platteville, which earned him an upgrade to Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

He was still a curious, and not entirely popular, choice to take over at Wisconsin when Dick Bennett retired in 2001.

Ryan, though, was a grinder who knew all he needed was time to prove that coaching is coaching.

He wasn't Gerry Faust coming out of high school to coach at Notre Dame.

Ryan knew his teaching tenets were colorblind and bulletproof. He valued "points per possession" years before analytics experts such as Ken Pomeroy made it must-know information available through subscription.

Ryan understood he was never going to win the way Kentucky and Duke win, by coaching up, each year, the 10 or 15 best high school players in America.

Ryan knew he could win by coaching up a better grade of player than he could recruit at Platteville.

"A lot of people are talented coming out of high school," Ryan said. "It's what they do with what they have."

Frank Kaminsky, this year's Wisconsin star, didn't arrive in Madison as an All-American. He will be leaving, however, as the national player of the year.

Ryan said he mainly wanted Kaminsky because "it seemed like it mattered to him whether or not he won a game or lost a game."

Ryan got lucky, too, that in-state star Sam Dekker, out of Sheboygan, wanted to be a Badger all his life.

Kaminsky and Dekker, under Ryan's tutelage, have become the top two scorers in the tournament.

Kaminsky has scored 111 points (22.2 per game), and Dekker has scored 103 (20.6 per game).

Ryan also knew minutes after the Kentucky win that his best coaching was needed to avoid a post-euphoria letdown.

He was reminded of the U.S. Olympic hockey team's epic win over Russia in 1980.

It was only the semifinal, and the U.S. still had to defeat Finland for the gold.

"I've been reminded on a few text messages that Finland is Duke," Ryan joked. "So, yes, we know we've got 40 more [minutes], as I've said a thousand times. We know we've got some work to do."

It should have come as no surprise on Sunday when word leaked that Calipari, hours after he lost to Ryan, was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Ryan didn't make it.

If you understand anything about his career arc after reading this story, you know that, in his life, things take time.

He and Krzyzewski both won titles in 1991, yes, and will play for another title on Monday.

They step on the court as coaches who could not have more, or less, in common.

"So you ask me what it was like?" Ryan said when asked about 1991 and now. "It wasn't like this."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

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