Acing the finals

Bo Ryan

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Saturday will be 100 hours long for Bo Ryan.

For one, he and his 2-seed Wisconsin Badgers will play for a spot in the Final Four, and Final Fours are to Bo Ryan what fruit was to Tantalus.

Ryan has the highest conference winning percentage of any 10-year-plus Big Ten coach in history -- .706 -- yet he's never made it to a Final Four. Thirteen Dances. Six Sweet 16s. Two Elite Eights. Zero Final Fours. The coyote never gets the roadrunner, and Bo Ryan never gets the Final Four.

For two, it's his dad's birthday. Butch Ryan -- his unforgettable, never-met-a-stranger, life-of-any-party dad -- would've been 90 Saturday. Butch, who died last August, was always Bo's plus-one at Final Fours. Why? Because nobody could mend a heavy heart like Butch Ryan.

Butch laughed so hard one night at the Final Four he had to go to the hospital. He'd fly cheesesteaks in from his hometown of Philadelphia. Got in a dance-off one year with MC Hammer. Jumped up on stage with a trio of female singers in New Orleans once and sang so well with them that they let him keep all the tips, which he used to buy everybody hurricanes. Was voted Final Four All-Lobby every year.

Forget that. He was All-Bo every season. When his son coached the 1998 Division III UW-Platteville team to a 30-0 national championship (one of his four national titles there), Butch snuck into the background of the team celebration photo and held up a sign that said, "BRING ON DUKE." Bo didn't even know until the pictures came back.

Butch was a one-man Optimist Club. He always called Bo "Ace," and every time the tournament knocked Bo on his butt, Butch would take him by the neck at the Final Four and go, "Ace, you're gonna get here next year, just you watch."

But Butch never did get to watch.

"More people knew my dad at Final Fours than me," Ryan remembers after his Badgers crushed Baylor 69-52 Thursday night to make it to another Elite Eight. "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. But now he's gone and it just seems like maybe this year ..."

He didn't finish the sentence, but you can. After all those years of going with his dad to the Final Four, all those years of Butch cushioning the blow of not making it, here Ace is with maybe his best chance yet to make one, and no Butch.

"It's hard, man," Bo says. "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."

Could happen. Could be God won't recognize Wisconsin this year and will forget to smite the Badgers. After all, they don't play much like a Wisconsin team. They can actually score. They have style. And they've heard about this new 3-point line thing.

Now they need one last win, over Arizona, on Saturday at a Honda Center that will have so many Wildcats fans it will feel like a suburb of Tucson. They need one more win to give Ryan a gift nobody's ever wrapped up for him.

"We want that for Coach," Badgers forward Sam Dekker says. "And he wants that for us."

"I'd be honored to be part of that," said 7-footer Frank Kaminsky.

Ryan, ever superstitious, won't go there much, so that's why you ask his old friend Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez.

"Oh, he wants it bad," Alvarez says. "Because, I would think he's gotta get tired of hearing that bulls---. I mean, he's a great coach. He goes down to the wire against Syracuse (in 2012), it goes down to the last possession, and it doesn't go his way. Now all of a sudden he's a lousy coach?"

No, Bo Ryan is a very good coach, partly because Butch taught him that -- and a few tricks, too.

Such as the time Bo's Little League coach had to work, and Butch took over. They were down 11-5 in the top of the last inning and nobody on the team seemed too worked up about it. So Butch had them pack everything up -- bats, balls, all of it. If they didn't care, he didn't care. "Everybody on the team starts yelling, crying," Bo remembers. "Not me. I knew what he was doing. ... Sure as I'm sitting here, we come back and win 12-11. So I learned early -- sometimes you send messages in different ways."

Bo's message to Wisconsin this close to paradise?

"Thank you for giving me 40 more minutes of basketball with you guys," he told his team.

And now, at 66, he waits for one more try at a ticket to a real Final Four, a Wisconsin Final Four, a Final Four that could give him the national championship he wants like he wants his next breath.

And if he loses Saturday?

"Man, I'm going to be looking for some company."

And that's when it's really going to hurt.

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