Bo Ryan's Fairy-Tale Final Four Trip Missing a Major Character

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2014

Jon Durr/USA Today

It didn't take Bo Ryan long at all to look to the heavens after securing his first Final Four trip as Wisconsin's long-time basketball coach.

You could tell right away that he had no doubt his father, who passed away at the age of 89 last August, was gazing right back at him.

Long before Ryan came to coach this fine Wisconsin team into Saturday's Final Four showdown with Kentucky, even long before he took over the Wisconsin program 13 years ago, Bo and his dad, William "Butch" Ryan, made the trek to college basketball's greatest spectacle each and every year.

Butch Ryan was an American hero and a character in the truest sense of the word. He was a blue-collar guy, a pipefitter and decorated World War II serviceman.

He doubled as a dad and a youth sports coach who taught young Bo the value of hard work on and off the court and of the fundamentals of the game, such as always trying to make the extra pass on offense and never letting up on defense.

Bo Ryan learned his craft from his father, Butch.
Bo Ryan learned his craft from his father, Butch.Jeffrey Phelps

Bo Ryan put those principles into practice for this Wisconsin team long ago. It's how the Badgers won 13 of their last 15 games and earned a No. 2 seed for this NCAA tournament, which technically makes them the favorite over eighth-seeded Kentucky (although some oddsmakers disagree).

That some folks can't fathom Wisconsin as the favorite in a hoops matchup against Kentucky should surprise no one, least of all Bo Ryan.

He added in a teleconference with the media, via's Drew Franklin, "I tell you, the people here in this state (of Wisconsin) are crazy about basketball. They realize they didn't invent it like some other states believe." 

Earlier, after his Badgers beat favored Arizona, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, in the Elite Eight, Bo Ryan indicated that his greatest joy is emulating what he saw his father do as a coach in youth leagues years ago.

"He was always about the kids that he helped mentor growing up, and that's why I do it," Bo told Jesse Temple of "To be able to see the faces on these guys, to see the genuine excitement, I can remember some of the great teams he had of kids and their first championships and how they acted and (how they) just had the joy."

According to Temple, Ryan pulled his players together in the locker room following the Arizona game. After telling them how proud he was and thanking them for allowing him to coach them for another game, he spoke of Butch.

"Just so you guys know, this would have been my dad's 90th birthday," Ryan told them.

Bo Ryan is no youngster himself these days. He's 66, and he was fast becoming one of those guys who seemed destined to be one of the greatest college coaches who never reached a Final Four.

Of course, he always had the trips with his father to fall back on when it came to taking a stroll down Final Four memory lane. They started making the trips in 1976 when Bo became an assistant coach at Wisconsin, making the short drive that year from their hometown of Chester, Pa., to the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

They would come in Butch's RV, and as the years passed, Butch's reputation grew. He would bypass security guards to talk with coaches or players, including once when he was spotted swapping stories with none other than Dean Smith.

He was known to fly in cheesesteaks from Philly to share with new friends he made. He held an impromptu dance-off with none other than MC Hammer when Hammer really was somebody.

And according to writer Rick Reilly of, Butch once jumped up on stage with a trio of women to join them in song and was such a hit that they let him keep all of the tips thrust their way.

Butch used the newfound money to buy everyone in the joint a round of drinks. Reilly wrote, accurately, that Butch Ryan "was voted Final Four All-Lobby every year."

Not a day goes by without Bo Ryan thinking of his father.
Not a day goes by without Bo Ryan thinking of his father.Jae C. Hong

"More people knew my dad at Final Fours than me," Bo Ryan told Reilly. "It was our bonding time. Hell, I always had time there 'cause I've never been able to play in one of the dang things."

Until now. 

In 1994, when Bo was on his way to coaching Wisconsin-Platteville to four national championships, he tied an orange UW-Platteville sweatshirt to his RV flagpole and ran it up there as a display of support for his son.

By all accounts, Butch was so proud of his son—and so convinced that one day Bo would coach a Wisconsin team to a Final Four.

Last year, they couldn't make the usual trip together in the RV. Butch was too ill. Bo flew him to Atlanta anyway, and they watched the games together in a hotel.

Bo Ryan didn't know at that time that it would be their last Final Four together.

Then again, maybe it isn't. Maybe Butch will be right there with him in the arena on the Wisconsin bench, even if none of us will be able to physically see it.

After making it to the Elite Eight by beating Baylor, Ryan told Reilly, "It's hard, man. Sometimes I walk by all the pictures of him on the wall at home and, you know, it's just hard. ... But if we go, I gotta figure he'll be there somewhere. No way he wouldn't make it."

No way. This one is for Butch Ryan as much as it is for Bo Ryan.


Joe Menzer has written six books, including one about college basketball entitled Four Corners, and now writes about college hoops, golf, NASCAR and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.