VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – When NCAA March Madness gets underway next week, Bo Ryan-coached Wisconsin will be one of the favorites to win the whole loopy hoopy shebang.
And why not?
With four starters back from last season’s Final Four outfit, UW this campaign has racked up a sensational 28-3 log, captured The Big Ten title and is currently ranked No. 5 in the country.
Last year, the kids from Cheese Country were just happy to make it to the final weekend.
This go ’round, though, Bo’s Badgers have their sights set on Wisconsin’s first national basketball crown since 1941.
And no one will be pulling for them to hit the bulls-eye more than MAS and his big bro, Bill Wiggins.
Family ties that stretch back over 65 years.
Way back to the post-World War II era when Bo’s father William “Butch” Ryan and our Pop William “Sonny” Wiggins toiled side-by-side at the Sinclair (now BP) oil refinery, just down the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
There, huge tankers would deliver the crude oil from Texas and South America that would be converted into gasoline, which was then delivered by truck throughout the U.S.
Besides the same employer, Pop and Butch also shared a great passion for sports.
Dad had been a high school football and basketball captain and minor league baseballer.
Well, though athletically talented, a troubled upbringing robbed him of a shot at high school stardom and beyond.
As a teenager, Butch, to escape the mean streets of hardscrabble Chester, Pennsylvania — just down the road from Sinclair, lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Pop liked and respected Butch Ryan, a hard worker, but would sometimes roll his eyes when Butch would spin one of his yarns of athletic derring-do. (Y’see Butch, like any Irishman worth his Guinness, was well-versed in blarney.)
In fact, Bo once told MAS, “My Dad has a thousand stories — and some of them are even true.”
While working at Sinclair, Butch was also a selfless and tireless youth sports coach back in his native Chester.
One of his football, basketball and baseball stars was his own son, nicknamed Bo — after famed light-heavyweight boxer Bobo Olson — for his propensity for getting into scraps.
When Bo entered high school, Butch turned him over to the then-head football coach at Chester High, who was — of all people — Sonny Wiggins’ son Bill, Jr. (MAS’ bro).
(True story: Bill, Jr. was later the catcher and Butch the pitcher on the same fast-pitch softball team. Before a game, in going over their pitch signals, Butch told MAS’ bro: “I’ve got eight pitches” — an unheard of number. Billy then told Butch “Well, you had better trim your repertoire, because I’ve only got five fingers to put down.”)
Bo Ryan was a standout defensive back at CHS — a ballhawk with great instincts on pass defense.
Well, that was a different story.
Even Bo likes to joke that his high school grid claim to fame was having cleat marks on his chest as a result of being run over by a rival’s star running back — name of Reggie Jackson.
(Yes, THAT Reggie Jackson — he of the Baseball Hall of Fame.)
But it was as a basketball guard that Bo Ryan would shine brightest.
He was one of the all-time greats in a storied Chester High basketball program — the Clippers have won more games and state titles than any school in Pennsylvania history.
After high school, Bo starred in hoops at Wilkes University in the coal regions of northeast PA.
Upon graduating, Ryan bounced back and forth between scholastic head coaching jobs in suburban Philly and college assistant positions in Wisconsin.
Eventually Bo became the head man at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, where over 17 years he would rack up a phenomenal 314-37 record (.895) and win four D III national titles.
(The pay was so low, however, that — at one point — Bo and his family of seven qualified for food stamps.)
Then the big time — and the good life (which would eventually include a mansion with its own private lake) — came calling.
Ryan was first hired at Division I Wisconsin-Milwaukee and proceeded to turn that school’s young program around.
That success earned Butch’s boy the cherished job at THE University of Wisconsin.
And even greater accomplishment followed.
Over 14 seasons, Bo’s UW clubs have won 349 games and are a national power yearly, having made the NCAA tourney EVERY season he has been at the helm.
But grabbing the brass ring of U.S. college hoops this year won’t come easy — a lot of tough tests lie ahead at the Big Dance.
And should Wisconsin again return to the Final Four, powerful — and current No. 1 — Kentucky will likely be waiting.
The Wildcats, loaded with future NBA stars, are currently 31-0 and are seeking to become the first undefeated national collegiate champ since Indiana, coached by Bobby Knight, last turned the trick way back in 1976.
MAS asked Bo what a ballclub must do well to slay the fearsome UK dragon.
“A team has to be patient and take high-percentage shots to have a chance,” Ryan opined. “And they must limit their turnovers.
“On the defensive end,” he continued, “they must limit transition baskets and hold Kentucky to one shot each trip down.”
All of which should be right in Wisconsin’s wheelhouse.
Bo’s Badgers ooze discipline and precise execution — just like the Bro Bill-coached Chester High grid teams that Ryan played for.
MAS thinks not.
From his home in New Hampshire, heartily cheering on UW will be the man Bo still calls “Coach” — Billy Wiggins, who just can’t stop proudly talking up “his boy.”
The pair, to this day, communicate often — they talked on the phone for half-an-hour just last week.
Interested bystander MAS, too, will be pulling big time for Wisconsin.
Most importantly, though, Bo Ryan and his Badgers will have some backing from on high as well.
Butch Ryan and Sonny Wiggins are no longer with us. But it’s for sure they’ll be up There rooting UW on.
Butch will probably be dressed head-to-toe in complimentary red and white Wisconsin gear — baseball cap, sweat suit and sneakers — just as he was some years back when MAS bumped into him in a supermarket while on a trip back home to the Philly area.
And every once in awhile, the elder Ryan will probably spin another of his yarns. To which Sonny — with a shake of his head — will reply: Butch that’s the 10th damn time you’ve told me that story and it keeps changing every time.
When it comes to the Ryans and Wigginses, it’s all in the families.
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