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Wisconsin basketball: In Greg Gard, Badgers get their man

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When the Badgers introduced Greg Gard as their head coach on Tuesday, one thing was made clear: they got the right guy.

MADISON -- On June 30, 2015, then-Wisconsin Badgers head coach Bo Ryan faux-limped into a press gathering following his initial retirement announcement in the Kohl Center concourse. He told reporters packed shoulder-to-shoulder in a half-circle around him that he wouldn't be coaching forever and intended to coach one more season.

But that wasn't the most important statement that Ryan made. Nope, that one was reserved for his assistant of 23 years, Greg Gard.

"It's not even something that's debatable right now," Ryan said of hiring Gard when the time came. "Greg's mind is better than anybody's I've been around when it comes to [offense, scouting, personnel]."

So when Ryan retired on Dec. 15 just 12 games into the season, the Badgers named Gard the interim head coach. When the time came to make a decision about the position going forward, they would evaluate as necessary, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said.

That time came, but the evaluation wasn't all that necessary. It had already been done by Gard and the Badgers on the court over the last three months.

When the Badgers formally introduced Gard as their head coach at a press conference in the Nicholas Johnson Pavilion on Tuesday, it was clear: they got their guy.

Under Gard, Wisconsin went 13-6 and tied for third place in the Big Ten -- both laughable propositions after its 1-4 start to Big Ten play. Any doubt that formulated over that slovenly conference start under Gard was squashed. And it was done game after game.

Beating No. 4 Michigan State. Taking down eventual conference champion Indiana. Winning at No. 2 Maryland. And, just for good measure, knocking off No. 8 Iowa on the road.

Though Gard repeatedly affirmed that he was not looking at his time as interim head coach as a test, we can now look back and see what, in large part, was: a test. And not only did Gard pass it, he aced it with flying colors.

What forward Nigel Hayes described as "long overdue" is now official. The "unnecessary waiting game" is over. Get rid of the interim tag. Greg Gard is deserving the head basketball coach at Wisconsin, and he has a five-year contract.

Very rare is it that everyone -- and I mean everyone -- surrounding an athletic organization has the same unyielding support for the hiring of a specific coach. Players present and past, assistants, local and national media, fans and so on. As Gard would say, they all have two feet in the boat, two hands on the oar and are rowing in the same direction.

"Everything was A-plus," Alvarez said of the job Gard did as interim head coach following Ryan's retirement. "I just didn't see anything that was below standard. I just thought that he did an excellent job of managing the entire job.

"The bottom line is to see that team get better and better...to see how far that team has come speaks volumes."

That team, of course, is the 2015-16 Badgers, who stumbled inexplicably at home to Western Illinois and Milwaukee en route to a 9-9 start before they turned the season around under Gard. After a 1-4 start to conference play, the Badgers finished with their 15th consecutive top-four Big Ten finish, extending the all-time conference record.

"His audition was 19 games," Hayes said.

Ask his players, and they'll probably tell you that Gard was deserving of the permanent job even before he manned the sidelines for the first time Dec. 23 against Green Bay.

"We knew it in the beginning, that he did [deserve the head coaching job]," guard Zak Showalter said. "He's a great basketball mind, he knows what it takes to win."

That 19-game period, though, was necessary. Simply handing the job to Gard because he was the next man in line or because Ryan sung praises for his long-time assistant wouldn't be right.

Gard did exactly what he's done for the last 26 years of his coaching career: take things one day at a time.

"The thing that helped me the most was focusing on each day for what it was," Gard said.

He re-implemented the swing offense. Wisconsin's defense, which guard Jordan Hill called "really bad" earlier in the season, became a strength. He expanded the rotation, giving more minutes to players like Hill and forwards Alex Illikainen and Aaron Moesch.

"It was very impressive to me," Alvarez said. "Greg took the bull by the horns and implemented his offense and gradually improved the team and improved the players. He had a to incorporate more players to improve depth.

"You don't have to be a great basketball person to see the improvement as the season went on."

One of the last signs Alvarez needed to pull the trigger was how the players reacted to Gard in the head role.

"I saw an even keel with the players, which tells me that Greg and his staff have gotten through to the players. There's great communication and response from the players."

During his introductory press conference, a reporter asked Gard what role the players had in helping him get the job. Gard's response was true to himself. Classic.

"They've all bought in," Gard said. "They all had two feet in the boat and two hands on the oar. There wasn't anyone who had a foot on the pier."

Throughout his tenure as interim head coach, Gard asserted and asserted that this season wasn't about him. That wasn't just lip service.

"From day one he told us it was about us."

"From day one he told us it was about us," Showalter said. "He's such a good communicator."

"I’ve said it and I really mean that: it wasn’t about me," Gard said. "For me it was (to the players), 'Thank you for what you’ve done for me, thank you for what you’ve done for my family. I’m still going to be a pain in your rear-end for a while and we’ve got a lot yet to accomplish.'"

Now, the Wisconsin program is in the hands of one of its own.

A native of small-town Cobb, Wis, Gard has never held a job out of the state.

"I think it’s just special for the state of Wisconsin from a standpoint of being one of their own that’s been able to trek through their career at various stops around the state, and to ultimately be in this position to be able to lead your home state institution’s flagship school into the future," Gard said. "And it’s something I am extremely proud of, I take extremely seriously and have great pride in this institution and what it represents.

"I could not be any happier, more excited or more proud to be able to be the next head basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin."

Gard's roots are clear. He personally thanked the wife of his coach at Iowa-Grant High School; the athletic director at Southwestern School District, Bill Taylor, who gave him his first coaching job; and Jim Nedelcoff, the WIAA Hall of Fame coach at Southwestern High, whom Gard first coached under. Each of those integral people to Gard were at his press conference.

For a man who said he says his emotions never sway too much either way, Gard got emotional when talking about his roots. His father, Glen, passed away in October of Glioforme Blastoma, a form of brain cancer.

"It all started in a little town about 60 miles from here," Gard said. "You all know where it is now, maybe you didn’t 15 years ago, but Cobb’s pretty popular today.

"And for my mom, Connie for you to be here, and dad’s here, as well. He’s just watching from above. But thank you for everything. All that you’ve done."

Now, it's time to see all that Gard will do for Wisconsin basketball.