Greg Gard has, what we in the people business call, a big problem.
In case you missed it on Tuesday, a secret recording of a meeting with all seven of last year’s seniors and the coaching staff was leaked to Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal and, well, it was not a good look for Gard. Polzin also has an excellent column with his thoughts on the matter right here.
I have been thinking pretty hard about this incident, which sounds like it should’ve taken place in an episode of Scandal (topical reference, I know), instead of at a Big Ten basketball program, and I think I’ve come to my final conclusion.
It is not time to fire Greg Gard...yet.
Last year sucked for everyone and, I’d imagine, it sucked for college athletes more than most. They weren’t allowed to see their families, they were constantly taking COVID tests, they were playing in front of empty arenas, if they even got to play at all, and they basically only got to talk to, and see, the other members of the basketball program. This is on top of trying to do school virtually and all of the nonsense that entailed. That would take a toll on any of us.
What I’m trying to say is, I get that the players were frustrated.
Here was a team that was coming off of a shocking run to a Big Ten regular season title in 2019-2020. They were as hot as anyone in the country heading into postseason play and then...the world stopped. Everything got canceled and they didn’t get a chance to tie a bow on their season. Heading into the 2020-2021 season there were extremely high expectations for the Badgers, Final Four expectations, even though the season was going to be weird due to COVID.
That wasn’t going to bother the Badgers though! You’ve seen the graphic that was used on every game on BTN or FS1, right? The Badgers starting five was older than the Chicago Bulls starting five! A veteran team like this could handle anything! Well, you know it didn’t go down like that. The team, for most games, looked anything like a veteran laden squad that was coming off of a conference championship. They looked confused, they looked uninterested, they looked...sad.
So, that brings us back to head coach Greg Gard. What is he doing wrong that made an entire seven-man senior class basically say “we want nothing to do with you or this program after we leave Madison”? Based on the Polzin article linked above it sounds like he has an inability to relate to his players and needs to be, well, himself.
“The biggest complaint I’ve heard during Gard’s run of 5½ seasons is that he’s trying too hard to be like Ryan. When Gard says something nasty, it comes off as fake because he’s a nice guy off the court.”
Gard, very clearly, needs to change a number of things about his coaching style off the court (say what you will about his on court tactics, but they are generally pretty sound) in order to connect with the players on his team and make them feel involved and valued. A good manager of people does these things and then his players (or employees) are willing to go to bat for them and go the extra mile. You’ll surely note that Brad Davison, the only one of the seniors to come back, was the only player to say something on the record to Polzin that was at least mildly complementary of Gard.
Here’s the funny thing about “change” though. Not everyone has to do it. If you’re good enough at whatever it is you do, people change for you. Take, for instance, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers. He seems to be the living embodiment of the old phrase “if you run into one asshole, that was just an asshole...but if you keep running into assholes, then you’re the asshole.” Rodgers doesn’t speak to his family anymore, has had reported issues with multiple coaches, and, quite frankly, comes off as an aloof prick sometimes.
But he has won a Super Bowl. And a Super Bowl MVP. And three regular season MVPs. And has set multiple NFL records. In short, he wins and people change for him.
Now, on the other side of this coin you have Sixers point guard (???) Ben Simmons. He is as talented a basketball player as they come. He has made All-Star teams and All-Defense teams and is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He also is useless in the playoffs, won’t (can’t?) shoot at any point in the season, and hasn’t been past the Eastern Conference Semifinals in his career.
Simmons has been told to change and he has said he would do it...and then he doesn’t and the cycle repeats itself and now he’s probably on the trading block out of Philly. Simmons doesn’t win so he needs to change. When he doesn’t? That’s when BIG changes are made.
Gard has a pretty good record at Wisconsin (119–69, .633 winning % overall; 69-45, .605 winning % in Big Ten), won that aforementioned Big Ten title and also was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2020, and he was named the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year in 2016. He has won more NCAA Tournament games than he has lost and he has also improved the recruiting in Madison.
Is that good enough for people to be changing for Gard? To put it bluntly, no. It isn’t. He has an extremely young team heading into the upcoming season and they are going to take their lumps. Winning covers up a lot of issues and this team probably won’t do enough winning to keep the wolves at bay.
Gard needs to take a look in the mirror and figure out who he wants to be as a coach. Those who don’t adjust and adapt get passed with a quickness and Gard is at a crucial fork in the road in his coaching career. This leaked tape (which, if you’ll allow me a quick aside, is bullshit. It shouldn’t have been leaked and that sucks for all the players that it was, but Gard’s biggest concern being the fact that it was leaked and not the fact that the meeting had to be called in the first place is even more bullshit. Own your mistakes, Gard!) is going to be used by every coach in the Big Ten and the Midwest to negatively recruit against the Badgers.
It’s going to be tough out there for Gard and his crew, but if he can make the proper changes and take what his former players said to heart, this can be a salvageable, learning experience for him. If he can’t, or won’t, change...well then we’re going to have to have another conversation.