It's easy to spot how Bo Ryan's street-fighter attitude and competitive edge come from his father, who has been a visible confidant and mentor throughout his life. Outgoing and often outspoken, Butch Ryan is a retired coach, teacher and community leader from rough-and-tumble Chester, Pa., who had a passion for helping kids.
It's much harder to spot how Bo Ryan's mother influenced him because she did it more subtly and from behind the scenes. Look closely and you can see that the drive and determination of the UW-Madison men's basketball coach have roots with Louise Ryan, who died of congestive heart failure on Dec. 27 at age 86.
"She was a good lady," said Ryan, who has largely kept his mother's death a private matter. "She worked hard for everybody else."
What is open for public consumption is how Ryan has honored his mother by leading the Badgers to improbable success this season. The team has held its own during the most competitive Big Ten season in 20 years despite losing junior point guard Josh Gasser to a season-ending knee injury and senior forward Mike Bruesewitz to two injuries that slowed him for much of the early going.
A group of role players became leading men under the steady command of their coach, who didn't miss a practice or a game while flying to and from Florida during the first three months of the season to be with his dying mother.
"There's no question that adversity made us stronger," Ryan said.
Butch Ryan, 89, is still in Florida living in the retirement condo Bo Ryan bought for his parents a few years ago near Fort Myers. The elder Ryan needs a walker, his eyesight is bad and he has problems with dementia.
But his biggest problem is trying to adapt to life without Louise. They were married for 68 years and knew each other for more than 70.
Most of that time, Butch was out working with kids in Chester's gyms and community centers, while Louise worked in the business office at Widener University. She eventually became the school's business manager despite not having a college degree. "She was self-taught," Bo Ryan said.
The school's administrators knew Louise would do a good job as business manager, Bo Ryan said, although her lack of a degree initially kept them from offering her the position.
"Finally, the school president told her she could get the job if she took all six accounting classes offered at Widener over the following year and aced all of them," said Ryan, who then smiled and added, "and that's how she became the business manager."
Up to the challenge
That same sort of tenacity has helped Ryan, 65, in his daunting task this season, which began when Gasser went down with a torn ACL in August. Gasser was the indisputable leader of the team, the best defender and the cog that made the offense go.
Making matters worse were the injuries suffered by Bruesewitz — first a lacerated leg that required emergency surgery, then a concussion — that kept him out of several games and slowed him most of the early season.
Lessons were learned the hard way and the team suffered uncharacteristic losses during the non-conference season as players like junior guard Ben Brust, sophomore guard Traevon Jackson and freshman forward Sam Dekker worked to get up to speed.
Associate head coach Greg Gard marveled at how Ryan never changed, despite all the challenges.
"How he handled everything makes him who he is. It's why he'll be a Hall of Fame coach," said Gard, who has worked with Ryan for 20 years. "He stayed so consistent and persistent. He had his thumb on a lot of guys, pushing them to get better and accepting nothing less."
The Badgers (20-10 overall, 11-6 Big Ten), who will complete their regular season Sunday at Penn State, are destined for a 15th consecutive NCAA tournament berth, the team's 12th under Ryan.
"This group has come as far as any group we've ever had," Gard said.
The only time Ryan spoke publicly about his mother was shortly after she died. He mentioned that, on her deathbed, she asked her son when the Badgers were going to start playing better. "Because you aren't very good right now," she told him.
The team did improve — with a seven-game winning streak culminating in a 64-59 victory Jan. 15 at then-No. 2 Indiana — something senior forward Ryan Evans credited to Ryan's determination. That was never more apparent than on the day Louise died, Evans said.
Ryan did not announce to the team that his mom had died and conducted practice as usual just hours after her death. That made an impression on Evans, the Badgers' fifth-year senior, who himself has endured the deaths of several friends and relatives. He knew how emotionally and physically spent Ryan must have felt.
After practice, Evans texted Ryan and thanked him for his consistent dedication and commitment to the team and his approach of always looking ahead.
"He asks us to do so much, but he doesn't ask us to do anything he can't do," Evans said of his coach. "That means a lot to me. It meant a lot to the team.
"That's why we've been successful, why we've accomplished what we have this season."
A mother's influence
Ryan has spent most of his life talking with his father about his teams, the game and everything connected with sports. The two have attended numerous NCAA Final Four tournaments together. Ryan's parents often attended the Final Four, too, at one point buying an RV to drive to every Final Four east of the Mississippi River and throwing a parking-lot shindig before the semifinal games.
For Louise, the role of coach's wife was one that suited her well. And she was able to pass on her experience and wisdom to another coach's spouse — Kelly Ryan, Bo's wife.
Louise, Kelly said, remained a guiding force right up until her death.
"I talked to her all the time," Kelly said. "It's hard because you want to pick up the phone and call her."
After spending the Christmas holiday with his parents in Florida, Ryan said his final goodbye to his mother on Dec. 26 and then flew home.
After Louise died, Ryan huddled with his family at his home in Middleton. "We all had a good cry, and then Bo went to practice," Kelly said.
Louise would have known precisely how everyone was feeling.