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The long, emotion-filled journey of Wisconsin interim head coach Greg Gard

This year has presented quite the journey for Greg Gard, from Final Four exuberance to the death of his father and becoming the Badgers' interim head coach. Through it all, he hasn't changed.

Greg Gard knows jubilation. He knows heartbreak and triumph and everything in between. He knows worry and faithful diligence.

Most importantly, he knows himself.

Greg Gard now has a chance to show he knows basketball, too.

Gard's promotion to interim head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers on Tuesday night comes as the final step in an emotional roller coaster spanning much of 2015 that has led him through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

"I've probably experienced every emotional quality or facet that probably exists in the human element over the last six, seven months, for a variety of reasons," Gard, 45, said.

On April 4, when the Badgers dethroned the 38-0 Kentucky Wildcats for the biggest win in program history, it was the scouting report of Gard, the assistant head coach, that put them over the top.

"Greg Gard had Kentucky here," Badgers head coach Bo Ryan lauded after the game. "Again, might be one of the brightest minds in the game. His scouting report, what he did with our 6'4" guys in the scouting report.

"I know our guys were extremely prepared."

In 23 seasons under the tutelage of Ryan, Gard has shown he is an architect of the scouting report, but nothing could prepare him for the emotional avalanche that would soon sweep its way through his life.

The story continued two nights after the victory over Kentucky, when the Badgers fell short, 68-63, in the National Championship game against Duke.


That spring, Gard's father, Glen Gard, was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, a form of brain cancer.

After a six-month battle, Glen, 72, passed away on October 30, two weeks before Greg's Badgers would open their season against Western Illinois. He was Greg's lifelong role model and closest friend.

Heartbreak. Heartache.

Sandwiched in between the Final Four elation in April and the death of his father in October was a coaching saga involving Ryan, another father figure in Gard's life.

Ryan, 67, mulled retirement following his 14th and most successful season at the helm of Wisconsin. He had 740 wins at the college level, but was one short of the confetti, streamers and One Shining Moment on April 6 against Duke.

That weighed upon him, and it was evident within minutes of the loss to the Blue Devils. At the post-game press conference, Ryan's demeanor appeared dejected to observers. They all knew why.

The clock was running out on Ryan's career whether they had won or lost. They lost, and it was obvious the man who won four national titles at Division-III UW-Platteville would not get another chance at the game's highest level.

Ryan was ready to retire in the weeks immediately following the season, but, following the advice of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, didn't rush to a decision. By June, however, Ryan was set to retire and name his long-time assistant Gard the heir.

But complications with Glen's health delayed that decision from Ryan. As have all of his moves up until, and including, his sudden retirement on Tuesday following the Badgers 64-49 win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Ryan was looking out for Gard.

While Greg was traveling around the country in hopes of providing Glen with the best cancer treatment possible, he was in no position to have one of the nation's top basketball programs handed to him.

"We put that on the back burner, retirement," Ryan said during his off-the-script retirement announcement.

Instead, Wisconsin released an intricately-worded statement from Ryan on June 30, detailing that he "decided to coach one more season with the hope that (Ryan's) longtime assistant Greg Gard eventually becomes the head coach at Wisconsin."

The culmination of Gard's wild ride through 2015 came most recently, when Ryan confirmed to him on Tuesday that he would be stepping down 12 games into the season and Gard would be named interim head coach. Just one more ride on the roller coaster of emotions.

If there was any singular person built to endure that ride, it was Gard.


Greg Gard is a nice guy's nice guy. A professional's professional. His character traits of €”loyalty, hard work and honesty have long been instilled in him.

They go back to Cobb, Wisconsin. They go back to Glen and Connie Gard.

As Gard sat atop the podium in the Kohl Center media room for the first time as the Badgers' head man, black zip-up jacket with a red motion W emblazoned on the breast, he spent as much time talking about his upbringing as he did his new job.

"I had two parents that set me off on the right foot from the very beginning," Gard said.

A hog farm in the small town of Cobb, Wisconsin, was the setting for Gard's childhood. The population of Cobb? You could fit the entire town into the Kohl Center. 42 times.

Gard learned the values of pride, responsibility, diligence, discipline and respect while sharing time between shoveling manure and being a three-sport athlete at Iowa-Grant High School.

"I got a head start that I think maybe a lot of people didn't have in terms of what (my parents) exposed me to early in my childhood with the work ethic, doing what was right, treating people the right way," Gard said. "That's at the core of who I am. What you see is what you get."

Badgers assistant coach Lamont Paris has seen a lot of Greg Gard over the years. What, exactly, has that consisted of?

"To put it bluntly: a lot," Paris said.

He then rattled off an entire list of Gard's attributes in a span of about ten seconds.

"What have I not seen? His demeanor, how he handles situation, how he handles people, how he recruits, how nice he is, how calm he is, how he relates to our players and other people, how he treats people."

The Badgers know what they are getting in Gard in terms of basketball prowess, as well.

He understands the intricacies of the Wisconsin offense and is a scouting mastermind--€”just ask last year's Kentucky team or Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, whose only losing record against Big Ten teams is against Ryan, Gard and the Badgers.

Don't expect any major changes to the brand of Wisconsin basketball you've grown accustomed to watching.

"Our brand of basketball and our pillars of success are pretty well-cemented and time-tested, so for me to make wholesale changes, that's not who I am because that's not my philosophy and not what makes up what I feel is important," Gard said.

Gard's faithfulness to Ryan and to Wisconsin will at long last come to fruition after 23 years, 14 of which have come in Madison, when the Badgers tip off against in-state opponent UW-Green Bay on December 23.

On that night at the Kohl Center, Gard will slide over 18 inches on the bench into the role of head coach.

"I think the biggest thing is for me to not treat it any differently," Gard said of that first game as interim head coach. If I start treating it differently and acting differently and weird and all that type of stuff, what message does that send to the team?

"I told the team I don't change as a person."

That he doesn't.


At his introductory press conference, Gard opened by referencing how grateful he was to be in his new position.

"That was my main message: that there's no way possible I would be in this position if it's not for hundreds of people along the way," Gard said. "There's no way I could mention them all."

Fair, Coach Gard. Even a run-through of all 456 Cobb residents would drag on like a poorly-planned Academy Award acceptance speech.

He made it a point to mention Ryan, however.

Gard was consistent in his loyalty to Ryan. When Toledo, Army and Green Bay all called with head coaching offers, Gard--€”just like Glen--€”stuck with his roots in Wisconsin.

For 23 years, Gard has been right by Ryan's side. First was the run to three national championships together at Platteville. Then there was a two-year stint in Milwaukee, followed by the most successful run in Wisconsin basketball history.

"Recently, obviously, in the last 24 hours, it's been bittersweet," Gard said Wednesday when he was officially announced as interim head coach.

No, the term ‘bittersweet' wasn't a reference to the three cups of coffee Gard had consumed already that day to account for getting just one hour of sleep; the high moment of Gard's coaching career came with having to say goodbye to his longtime mentor.

"I've been one of the lucky ones that has had 23 years learning and working side-by-side, I think, with one of the greatest that's ever coached the game," Gard said.


To understand why a man who has long been considered one of college basketball's top assistants would remain in the shadow of his tutor and never bolt for more money or more fame somewhere else is to, at its simplest form, to understand Greg Gard.

Gard never played a minute of college basketball. Rather, he was cut from the baseball team at UW-Platteville as a sophomore and, to fuel his competitive drive and keep himself afloat financially as a college student, he took a job coaching basketball to eighth graders.

Taking from the values he learned growing up on a farm in the nearby town of Cobb, Gard took the job seriously. He had a meticulous attention to detail and worked like Glen had taught him.

Jim Nedelcoff, a Hall of Fame coach at the high school level, was the varsity coach at nearby Southwestern High. The way Gard coached his players caught Nedelcoff's eye, and he asked the college kid if to help out at night with the varsity practice.

So, for three years, Gard would impart his wisdom on his younger players, then make the 15-minute drive to Southwestern High and spend more time on the hardwood. All for a salary of $800.

Then, whether sheer fortuitous timing or part of a divine plan, Ryan took over as the head coach at Platteville. As he had done with Nedelcoff, the young assistant Gard caught Ryan's attention.

There was no way for Gard to know how big the next chapter of his then-infant career would be when Ryan pulled Gard into his office.

"I had coached a few years in junior high and high school at the time, at a local high school, and (Ryan) said, ‘Hey, I'd like to have you join me as one of my assistants.'"

Sure enough, Gard found himself working as a full-time assistant with UW-Platteville while still a student at UW-Platteville.

At 22 years old, Gard's roommate was on the first Pioneers team that he coached. But, as with every step in his career, Gard handled that with remarkable professionalism.

"I learned at a very young age, with obviously the help of Coach Ryan, what this profession was going to be about, and with never the intention that this day would come," Gard said. "You never knew what the future was going to bring, but for me to be able to take these steps throughout my career."

There is no doubt within the Wisconsin program itself that Gard is fit for the job. That is why all of Ryan's moves over the past six months have been calculated so that Gard gets his audition as head coach.

"It's not even something that's debatable," Ryan said of Gard's qualifications for a head coaching position back in June. "Greg's mind is better than anybody's I've been around when it comes to (offense, scouting, personnel)."

Ryan isn't the only member of the Badgers coaching staff advocating for Gard.

"You look at what a person has done and how they've treated people and what they've been able to accomplish in the role that they've been in," Paris said. "All things would lead to Greg being a successful head coach."

It's now his turn--”until the end of the season, at least. Effectively, Gard has a three-month audition to remove the "interim" tag from his title and establish himself in the position he has waited 23 years for.

Pressure? What pressure?

"I've never had more than a one-year contract in my entire career," Gard said. "For me, it's never been about the pressure in that way."

Even if Gard does start to feel the pressure, odds are you probably won't be able to tell.

"If you've known me for very long, you know my boat doesn't get rocked too much one way or the other," Gard said. "I try to play and be pretty even-keeled...

"...I've been very fortunate that that's a personality trait I've been blessed with over the course of time from my parents, that nothing too much has been able to tip me upside-down."


Full disclosure: I am not in the category of writers, coaches and friends that have known Gard for very long.

This is my first season on the Badgers basketball beat. I introduced myself to Gard and interviewed him for the first time in mid-October, just two weeks before the passing of Glen.

Admittedly under-prepared, I had just three questions ready. Ryan's pre-season press conference was slated to begin in 10 minutes, so the interview wasn't going to go very long, anyway.

Until it did.

Many a time as a 20-year-old student reporter, interview subjects will brush you off more easily than with the big wigs that, you know, actually do this for a living. But not Gard. I asked a question for my story about trying to walk on to the team, and he began explaining the swing offense and the importance of having high-character players on a team. Gard's back was turned to the podium in the media room and he didn't notice when Ryan took his seat.

It wasn't until Ryan opened with a statement into the microphone that Gard noticed the press conference was beginning. He wasn't just talking with the student reporter out of obligation, but rather, was just talking with him.

Gard is personable. That's another trait he inherited from Glen and Connie.

In the hours after Gard was named interim head coach, his phone, as expected, exploded. Nearly 24 hours after Ryan announced his retirement, Gard still had yet to read through 350 texts, 500 e-mails and listen to 10 voicemails. One, from former Wisconsin forward and 2015 NBA first-round draft pick Sam Dekker, simply read ‘How ya doing? :)'

He would get to them, though. On one hour of sleep, Gard had to first fulfill multiple media obligations (sorry, Greg), meet with the coaching, strength and conditioning, basketball office and health staffs.

There was no practice held on Gard's first day on the job, due to final exams and the Badgers having played the night before, but the coach still addressed his team on Wednesday. His message?

"The main focus with the team has been: ‘Here is where we are, here's where we need to be and here's where we're going. We're all here for you, we're in this together. Everybody get both feet in the both, grab onto an oar and start rowing in the same direction."

Even with all the attention on him, Gard's attention was on his players. Given the Badgers 7-5 start, which includes home losses to Western Illinois and in-state rivals Milwaukee and Marquette, they better start rowing.

"The first thing, is their world has been turned upside-down here in the last 24 hours, so we need to make sure that they understand that we're here to help, and we're here to help facilitate them through this and help 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 or text any time they want."


The day had been coming.

Gard knew it. Alvarez knew it. Badgers fans knew it. The Big Ten knew it.

Eventually, Ryan would step down.

A program that had reached seven NCAA Tournaments until 2002-03, Ryan led Wisconsin to 14 consecutive appearances. Just over eight months ago, the Badgers were just minutes away from a national title.

Ryan will no longer be stalking, pacing, squatting and inflicting his trademark scowl upon officials from the Badgers bench, but Gard says he will always listen to the man who taught him so much about the game.

"I will always welcome his advice," Gard said. "That's never in question. I joked last night that I still have his phone number."

Gard can't be Bo Ryan. In fairness, though, nobody can be, and Gard understands that.

"For me to try to emulate Coach Ryan is not what I intend to do and won't be doing," Gard said.

"I have to be me and stick true to who I am and what's helped me to get to this point."

Good thing Greg Gard has been doing just that for 45 years.