CHICAGO -- Basketball practice has been going on at Wisconsin, and Bo Ryan -- the Badger legend who is supposedly on the clock for retirement -- has a declaration.
"I’m in my element now," he was saying Thursday at Big Ten media day. "That's just what I do. Just turn me loose in the gym."
Gee, that doesn’t really sound like a guy ready to schedule tee times next winter in California, does it?
Over the summer, Ryan sent ripples through Wisconsin -- not to mention the Big Ten and the college basketball universe at large -- by saying this season would be his last. Well, that’s how a lot of people took it anyway. Turns out, one word needs to be added.
"I didn’t say I wasn’t going to come back," he said. "I said, you know, when you get to this age there are no guarantees. What I did was to get it out there for everybody to understand, it’s not going to go on forever.’’
Ryan turns 68 in December. He has a gaggle of grandkids. He just coached Wisconsin’s first ever back-to-back Final Fours, spoiled Kentucky’s perfection and came within one Duke rally of a national championship last April. His 71.7 Big Ten winning percentage is the finest in the conference’s lengthy history among coaches with six or more seasons. All 14 of his Badger teams have made the NCAA tournament. He has never finished lower than fourth in the league, and his first Wisconsin team in 2002 shared the Big Ten title. Before that, the Badgers hadn’t finished at the top for 55 years, since 1947 -- the year Ryan was born.
So maybe it’s time. Or maybe it’s not. Have you heard Ryan’s hamburger analogy?
"It’s like me saying at that picnic, OK. I’ll have one more hamburger. How many guys have been at a picnic and had three more hamburgers when they said they were only going to have one?"
So he’s retiring after one more burger. Or not. Most any inquiring as to his current thoughts on the subject gets detoured down another road.
"We’ve got to practice at 4 this afternoon. All I’ve been thinking about this morning since I got up is the practice plan," he said. "All my mind’s doing right now is doing the things that I’ve been doing for 44 years."
Turns out what he had in mind during the summer was to give a fair warning, so nobody would be surprised. But it doesn’t sound like anyone should schedule a farewell tour.
"That was to let people know, look, I’m not doing this forever, nobody is," he said. "I think the smart ones realize that, 'Hey, this guy has been around a long time and he’s doing whatever he feels is best for his family and the game and the University of Wisconsin.' And that’s why I put something out there, to give everybody a little notice. That’s all. And it’s worked fine with the people who I know understand what it is that I did. And why I did it."
Everyone square now on his method?
"Probably unorthodox," he said. "But there really is no script for this."
Nobody knows for sure if this is it for Bo Ryan. Perhaps not even Bo Ryan. And certainly not some of the men he has competed against longest in the Big Ten. They can appreciate the mixed feelings their demanding profession often creates.
Ohio State’s Thad Matta: "Bo has been kind of an icon of the Big Ten, not only because of what he’s done and what his teams have done, but because of who he is as a person. I think the most impressive thing about Bo is he’s very passionate about the overall game of basketball; helping young coaches, doing what’s right for the game. I think that’s the biggest thing, if he steps down, that will be missed.
"I’m happy for Bo that he can be in a position that he can walk away, if he wants to. Whenever he does, he’s going to be able to put his head down at night and say, 'I did it the right way.'"
Purdue’s Matt Painter: "What goes through my mind is he still has a lot of energy. This job takes it out of you. We all have moments where you see somebody and you think, 'He’s tired, he’s not quite into it.' But you don’t have long moments that way, or if you do, then it’s your time. Bo doesn’t have those. He’s primed to be successful for a long time.
"But you also want to see someone of that stature and those accomplishments to go out on top, because very few of us do that."
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo: "I called him a wimp. I called him up and asked, 'Are you bailing out, you chicken? I need somebody to hang with. This is starting to be a pretty young league.'
"I hope he gets exactly what he wants. He deserves that right. But it’s sad to see a [Steve] Spurrier go or a Bo go. But I’ve learned, too. I’ve watched. I’m a really good student of coaches. If one time I start giving up the redeye trips because I’m too tired, or I don’t have the energy to go out and speak to our students, I’m getting out. There will be no swan song. It’ll be cut and dried. I owe the university that, I owe the students that, but I really owe the game that."
Even Ryan’s own players are in the dark. Not that they’re thinking much about it as they prepare for the season.
"When it first came out, we were all kind of shocked a little but," Bronson Koenig said. "Now we don’t even really mention it, to be honest.
"He’d probably get bored, as much golf as he’d be playing. He’s just too much of a competitor and loves to the game too much not to be around it every day. And he loves this team.
"Coach Ryan likes it so that no one really knows what he’s doing."
So, everyone is left wondering, as Wisconsin tries to keep the good times going.
"If he goes into retirement I’m going to miss him," Izzo said. "If he comes back another year, it’ll just be another trip to Madison to get yelled at."
His colleagues would be not be surprised to see him back, then?
"No," Maryland’s Mark Turgeon said. "Would you?"
No. For of all the things Bo Ryan said Thursday, this was the most telling, when he was discussing his current days.
"l’m in the gym now. And that’s right where I belong."