Greg Gard was born in Wisconsin, he went to college in Wisconsin, and he’s spent his entire career coaching in Wisconsin – all the way from high school assistant coach to head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers.
He’s led a charmed Wisconsin life.
But the last year of his life has been as up and down as they come.
“It’s been so surreal,” Gard said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “It’s been just a whirlwind. The last year of my life has been both the best year of my life and the worst year of my life all rolled into one. Coming off the Final Four, going 36-4, playing in the national championship and everything that went on with last year’s team – (it was amazing). Within weeks after the Final Four, my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. I went through about a six-month journey with him and he passed away in late-October. And then within about six weeks after that, Coach Ryan decides to retire and I’m in the interim role. That’s what the last 90 days have been: just trying to coach the Badgers as hard as I can. That’s really been my last year, just a gamut of emotions – the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. So it’s been surreal. It’s starting to sink in a little more. I’m trying to focus one day at a time and try to do the best I can to help this team grow every day. That’s the approach we’ve taken, and so far it’s worked.”
Gard lost four of his first six games following Ryan’s retirement, as the Badgers fell to 9-9 (1-4). They have since won 11 of 13, with the only losses coming on the road against top-15 Big Ten rivals.
“With so many guys leaving, we had a lot of holes to fill,” Gard said of the Badgers’ early season struggles. “Not only from the standpoint of on the floor, but the biggest thing was who was going to drive the ship in the locker room? Who was going to be the voice of reason? Who was going to be the rallying guy? We had to figure that stuff out early. We had not really established roles in the locker room, and that had carried over.”
The Badgers lost several players, including a pair of first-round draft picks, from last season. Wisconsin, which has relied heavily on juniors Nigel Hayes (16.5 points per game) and Bronson Koenig (13.5), is without a senior starter for the first time in 15 years.
“They went from being the quieter sophomores in the corner (to having more prominent roles),” Gard said of Hayes and Koenig. “All of a sudden they had to lead the charge. I don’t think they were quite ready at that point in time in November and really December.”
Gard has taken the advice of Barry Alvarez, Tom Izzo and others this season: Be yourself, focus on your team and don’t worry about the outside noise.
“That was my main focus, making sure our culture and our chemistry got right,” said Gard, who earlier this week signed a five-year contract to remain in Madison. “That started to (show) on the floor.”
The Badgers, who have beaten Michigan State, Maryland, Indiana and Iowa this season, now have their eyes set on winning the Big Ten Tournament and making some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
Whatever happens, Gard knows that his “invisible assistant,” his father, will be by his side.
“I’ve got a guardian angel – pun intended,” Gard said. “I’ve definitely felt his presence. He’s been around and I know he’s smiling.”