Greg Gard’s office on the second floor of the Kohl Center was a bit of a mess earlier this week as he prepared to move into a bigger space — previously occupied by Bo Ryan — just down the hall.
Gard, who has taken over as interim coach of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program, had to maneuver around some items to get to a bookshelf in the corner of his room. It was filled with resources that have helped him throughout his two-plus decades in coaching.
The collection includes books by national coaching giants in basketball (UCLA’s John Wooden) and football (Alabama’s Nick Saban). It also features some local flavor, with “A Season With Coach Dick Bennett” and Ryan’s “Another Hill to Climb” resting among the dust.
At one point, Gard pulled out another item that brought a smile to his face. It was a book co-authored by Ron Rainey, who was Ryan’s coach at Chester High School and Wilkes University in Pennsylvania and later was serving as Ryan’s assistant at UW-Platteville when a fresh-faced Gard arrived on the scene back in the early 1990s.
Inside that book, titled “Winning Basketball Drills,” was an inscription Rainey wrote in 1996.
“To a great grad Asst. Best of luck to you in your coaching profession. You will be a good one.”
All these years later, Gard is the 16th coach in program history. He’ll make his debut tonight when the Badgers (7-5) host UW-Green Bay (6-4) at 8 p.m.
It’s been a whirlwind for Gard since he was informed by Ryan during the afternoon of Dec. 15 that Ryan would retire, effectively immediately, following a game against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi later that day. To help him through the chaos, Gard has tried to lean on the advice he’s received since he got into the coaching business 25 years ago, as a way to fill a competitive void while also getting to work in athletics and with young people — two of his major areas of interest.
His first seven days on the job were jam-packed with interviews and planning and getting acquainted with everything that comes with his new role. But when things got too chaotic, Gard took a breath and reminded himself to focus on his main priority at work: his assistants and the 17 players in the locker room.
“We’ve got to get better,” Gard said. “That’s evident. Regardless of who is sitting in that seat, we’ve got some things we’ve got to get better at and take steps forward.”
Hungry to learn
Gard, 45, grew up in tiny Cobb and attended Iowa-Grant High School in southwestern Wisconsin.
His passion for high school sports ran deep. As a child at Cobb Elementary School, he’d ask his teacher for permission to go to the office, where the school’s principal would have the sports section of the newspaper waiting for him. During March Madness, Gard would analyze the WIAA state basketball field, trying to figure out where all the schools belonged on the map.
Garry Krull, the former football coach at Iowa-Grant, remembers Gard as “a young man who did everything right.” He said Gard, a three-sport athlete who helped Iowa-Grant reach the WIAA Class C boys basketball state semifinals in 1989, “was a dream come true. If all the kids were like him, then you’d have no worries at all.”
Gard was a college student at UW-Platteville in 1990 and not even 20 years old when, recently cut from the school’s baseball team, he saw an ad in the local shopper. The Southwestern school district was looking for an eighth-grade basketball coach.
Gard spent two seasons at the middle school level before moving up to coach the freshman team. Whenever he could, he’d help out Southwestern High School varsity coach Jim Nedelcoff.
In the spring, Gard coached junior varsity girls softball, where he made sure the team focused on fundamentals such as throwing, catching, fielding and bunting. “I was actually probably a better softball coach,” he said, “than I was a basketball coach at that time.”
But Nedelcoff saw a good basketball coach in Gard, too.
“Very impressive,” Nedelcoff said. “He was a hard worker. He wasn’t afraid of putting time in, even though he wasn’t getting paid.
“I was greatly impressed. He knew basketball and yet he wasn’t afraid to learn new things.”
Gard worked Ryan’s UW-Platteville camps during the summer and impressed the veteran coach with his work ethic. Prior to the 1993-94 season, Ryan recommended Gard to Platteville High School coach Greg Quam.
“Bo said, ‘I have a young man and, right now, I don’t have room for him on my staff. But he’s a real champion, and I think he could really help you,’ ” said Quam, who had been an assistant under Ryan at UW-Platteville. “Of course, I’m going to take any recommendation that Bo has and run with it.”
By the third game of the season, Quam was so impressed, he’d handed off the duties of putting together the opponent’s scouting report to Gard. Quam couldn’t pay Gard, so he’d invite him over for dinner or take him out to eat.
What Quam saw in Gard was a hungry coach who had an advanced understanding of basketball and clearly loved it. “It was really rejuvenating that someone that young, had that much passion for the game,” Quam said.
One time, as Platteville was preparing for a game against Richland Center, Quam told Gard to stay home because of a major snowstorm in the area. Gard didn’t listen, instead making the hour-plus drive in poor conditions in order to fulfill his duties.
“He showed up in my office the next day with a scouting report,” Quam said. “He just really wanted the kids to be successful, and he was going to do absolutely anything he could to make them successful.”
Climbing the ladder
Ryan finally found a spot for Gard at UW-Platteville prior to the 1994-95 season, which ended with the Pioneers going 31-0 and winning the second of their four NCAA Division III titles under Ryan.
Gard jumped in with both feet and made a solid impression on Rainey, among others.
“For a young guy, he was very intense and he followed up on everything,” Rainey said. “He was very observant and took a lot of notes from one of the best teachers in the country.”
Still, Gard had some obstacles to overcome. He was coaching college athletes despite still being a college student himself. He was roommates with some of the players, which made for awkward moments in the house on days that Gard offered constructive criticism at practice.
Early that season, Gard made a teaching point during practice and the player responded with an expletive. Gard looked at Ryan, who shrugged his shoulders. According to one player on that team, Ryan said, “I can’t make him respect you, Gardo.’ ”
But it didn’t take long for Gard to earn that respect.
“It was strange,” Ernie Peavy, one of the stars on that 1994-95 team, said of taking orders from a coach who hadn’t played basketball beyond high school. “But the thing about it was he knew the game of basketball.”
Gard was so thorough in his scouting reports on opponents that it annoyed the Pioneers to no end. Back then, Gard would present the scouting report on a dry-erase board in the film room inside Williams Fieldhouse.
Meanwhile, the players would be handed blank sheets of paper and were required to copy what was written on the board. Practice followed and, if Gard didn’t think the players had run an opponent’s play exactly the right way, they’d do it over again.
“He’d wear you down with the details,” Peavy said. “But at the end of the night when the game was done, you’re like, ‘Wow, that was exactly what they ran.’ It was amazing.”
Follow the leader
For everything Gard has learned about coaching and leadership through reading, some of his best lessons have come during late-night talks with his wife.
Michelle Gard is a longtime school administrator who was principal at Rome Corners Intermediate School in Oregon until deciding earlier this year to take a leave of absence so she could be available to help with medical issues within the family. Her husband calls her “the brains of the family.”
The Gards share a common interest in what it takes to be an effective leader and have devoured books, which they later discuss, by authors such as Jon Gordon and Ken Blanchard on topics such as leadership, culture and teamwork.
But some of the best information Gard digested came from hearing about how his wife had handled whatever challenges she’d encountered at school that day. They were free lessons in Problem-Solving 101.
“Whether it’s school, a business, a basketball team,” he said, “it’s an ability to get everybody going together and on the same page and get the right people on the bus — and then try to get them in the right seats.”
Greg and Michelle, who were married in 2000 and have three children, met in the mid-1990s “in a way that your parents would tell you never to do,” she said. The details: In a bar, at 2 in the morning, after a graduation for Saul Phillips, who played at UW-Platteville, coached alongside Gard under Ryan and now is the coach at Ohio University.
What Michelle saw then were some of the qualities she still appreciates in her husband today: humility, hard work and loyalty.
So she wasn’t surprised when he’d roll in late at night over the past week as the same guy he’d always been, even though his profile had undergone a significant upgrade.
“He’s not an up-and-down type of guy,” she said. “There have been things that have happened throughout the 20 years that I’ve known him that I’ll say, ‘OK, now, you can get really excited about this.’
“He’s just very even-keeled. He doesn’t get up, he doesn’t get down. He just takes it day by day. You would never know in our household that anything is any different.”
There are many questions facing Gard as he prepares to make his debut. Can he, as a rookie coach, command respect from the officials? Will he be able to motivate his players? Will he be willing to light a fire under them when necessary?”
“I just smile as people question whether Greg is ready for this position,” Michelle said. “He has all those qualities. I’ve seen it in our home life.”
Rainey has known it for a long time, too. He thought Gard was going to be a good one back then, and he still believes it some two decades later.
“He’ll have more pressure on him and he’ll be making all the decisions,” Rainey said. “It’s a big job, but I think he’s ready for it. I think he’ll be excellent.”