Greg Gard was warned.
When he’d visit with head coaches from around the country and pick their brains, trying to uncover any piece of information he could that might help him down the line when he finally got the opportunity to take over a program, there was one prevailing theme of what to expect.
“When you slide over that 18 inches, things are going to change and it won’t be so much what it is with the team, but it’s all the other things,” Gard said of the advice he received. “All hell may break loose.”
Gard found that out first hand this week.
He woke up on Tuesday as the associate head coach of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team. When his head finally hit the pillow early Wednesday morning — it didn’t remain there for long — he was the Badgers’ interim coach, a promotion that followed the retirement of longtime mentor Bo Ryan.
“It’s been a whirlwind, it’s been an avalanche, it’s been a hurricane all in one,” Gard said Wednesday. “But it’s been unbelievably positive. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I get more and more excited as the minutes go on.”
Gard said he got one hour of sleep, yet he looked fresh and full of energy during a 30-minute news conference at the Kohl Center.
He began the day with a long to-do list, and there was little question about which item he believed deserved top billing: a meeting with players and his assistant coaches, Gary Close and Lamont Paris, that took place prior to his gathering with the media.
“The main focus with the team has been, here’s where we are, here’s where we need to be and here’s where we’re going,” Gard said. “We’re all here for you and we’re in this together. Everybody get both feet in the boat, grab onto an oar and start rowing in the same direction.”
The Badgers headed into a break for semester exams with a 7-5 record. Their final stretch included back-to-back home losses to UW-Milwaukee and Marquette followed by a wart-filled, 64-49 victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Tuesday night.
Afterward, Ryan dropped the bombshell to his players — and later the rest of the world — that he was stepping down 12 games into his 15th season with the Badgers.
“Their world has been turned upside down in the last 24 hours, so we need to make sure that they understand that we’re here to help facilitate them through this,” Gard said. “I told them my door is always open, unless I’m in an emergency meeting. Walk in any time. They have my phone number, they can call, text any time they want. They have to understand we’re here for them first and foremost.”
Those who know Gard best say he’s the perfect man to step into the captain’s role and guide the Badgers through rough waters.
Ohio coach Saul Phillips, who played for Ryan at UW-Platteville and later coached alongside Gard at UW-Milwaukee and with the Badgers, remembers constant rumors about Ryan leaving the Pioneers for a job at a higher level.
“As a player, it was unsettling,” Phillips said. “For those players to be able to turn to a guy like Gardo … that’s a real positive in this situation.
“Gardo won’t be too dramatic about this. He’s just going to go in and coach like he can. Gardo’s not a dramatic person, he’s a worker. With all the emotion surrounding this (situation), that’s exactly what those players need right now.”
‘More than ready’
Gard grew up in tiny Cobb in southwestern Wisconsin and attended a UW camp in 1984 when Ryan was in the process of transitioning into the UW-Platteville job after a run of eight seasons as an assistant with the Badgers.
A decade later, Gard was a student at UW-Platteville who was in the infant stages of a career in coaching. Ryan pulled him into his office following the 1993-94 season and asked him to join the Pioneers’ staff.
That began a run of 22 seasons together, with three NCAA Division III championships at Platteville, a two-year stop at UW-Milwaukee in which Ryan and Co. built a strong foundation, and an impressive run with the Badgers that included 14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and top-four finishes in Big Ten Conference play.
“There’s nobody who’s done more on-the-job training for this than Gardo,” Phillips said. “From a basketball standpoint, no one will ever understand the amount of involvement he had on a day-to-day basis in that back-to-back Final Four run. Name a better guy for this situation than him. I think the players are fortunate to have someone so stable to come in and take over.”
Howard Moore, who played for the Badgers and later served as an assistant for five seasons at UW under Ryan, agreed with Phillips about Gard.
“He’s more than ready,” said Moore, who’s now an analyst with Big Ten Network. “I think he’s going to definitely do the things that it takes with this group to be successful.
“I think you’re going to see the team go back to true Wisconsin basketball. I’m not saying that in a slight to Bo, but I think the team, having the success they had coming off two Final Fours, they did it with tremendous talent and tremendous buying in. This is a different group here. I think Greg’s going to have to re-evaluate how they play and what they do and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see him go back to the traditional Wisconsin basketball and running more swing (offense) and more of the things that have made Bo successful and Wisconsin successful.”
Gard said the Badgers “will recruit aggressively” despite his interim status.
“I need to do the best job for this university, this athletic department and this men’s basketball program to continue to put it in position to continue to have success down the road,” Gard said. “We’ve got a great thing going here. We have a culture established, a formula and a foundation in place, and it’s our responsibility to keep pushing that forward.”
Gard said he may not fill the open spot on his staff unless he finds “the right fit,” which could be a challenge a month into the season.
He praised Close, Paris and the remainder of UW’s support staff, most of whom were present for the news conference.
Paris called it “an exciting time” for Gard and everybody else in the program.
“We’ll consider some other subtle changes that will put Greg’s stamp on it,” Paris said. “But his fingerprints are all over this program already.
“Bo Ryan trusted Greg Gard and his opinion on players and basketball stuff, Xs and Os, to the utmost level. So any idea that Greg has had, it’s probably been represented in some way, shape or form. If Greg believed in it strongly enough, it’s something that we have done.”
Gard will make his debut on Dec. 23 when the Badgers close non-conference play against UW-Green Bay at the Kohl Center.
He has a lot to do between now and then.
“I think the biggest thing for me is to not treat it any differently,” Gard said. “If I start treating it differently and start acting differently and weird, what type of message does that send to the team?
“I told the team, ‘I don’t change as a person.’ My role will change, my responsibility level will change. I understand decisions end with me. I have to make the final call … and I’m very comfortable with that. But I’m surrounded by terrific people that have experience and I will lean on people and have already. The biggest mistake I could make is to not be myself.”
Even when all hell breaks loose.