Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, March 25, 2015

It?s difficult to rise from obscurity to relevance in college sports, which has the most uneven landscape in the sporting world. But Wisconsin has broken through-and is looking for an even more comfortable place among the nation?s elite. A national championship would provide that.

[ MORE: Get all of our NCAA tournament coverage ]

Becoming a consistent power is difficult in college sports. The playing field tips heavily toward established power programs who are steeped in tradition and flush with cash. It can take a generation or more to turn around a program and make it a consistent winner capable of competing for championships.

We have seen remarkable transformations in football from programs like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Kansas State and Wisconsin. Now, Wisconsin basketball can stand on the same dais as a Wisconsin football program that A.D. Barry Alvarez fathered and has seen play in six Rose Bowls since the 1993 season in what has been one of the most remarkable athletic department rebirths in college sports history over the last 25 years.

Growing up, I saw a lot of bad Badger basketball teams slog through Purdue?s Mackey Arena. Wisconsin never stood a chance, losing 25 years in a row to Purdue from 1978-1990. And Mackey Arena was the Badgers personal house of horrors, as Wisconsin is 4-37 all-time in the venue. But the Badgers were almost everyone?s version of the Washington Generals for most of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. This is remarkable: Wisconsin had no first-team All-Big Ten players from 1969-1990.

God bless them, coaches like John Erickson (100-114 from 1960-68), John Powless (88-108 from 1969-76), Bill Cofield (63-101 from 1977-82) and Steve Yoder (128-165 from 1983-92) tried. But, in the end, they all failed to make Wisconsin hoops matter. Before them, good ol? Harold ?Bud? Foster ambled the sidelines from 25 years from 1935-59. And he, too, left with a losing record (265-267).


But things started to turn in Madison with Stu Jackson in 1993, who led the program to its first NCAA berth and Big Dance win in more than 45 years en route to going 32-25. Alas, he then left for the NBA. Stan Van Gundy (Yes, THAT Stan Van Gundy) held the bag for a season, going 13-14 in 1995. Then, Dick Bennett and his red sweater vest arrived from Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1996. And, the Wisconsin program has never been the same.

It was Bennett-who son Tony is coach of Virginia-who planted the seeds of success at Wisconsin, providing a line of demarcation between bad Wisconsin and good Wisconsin. It was Bennett who showed that you can win-and win big-in Madison.

Bennett was Mr. Wisconsin, a product of Ripon College who cut his teeth as head coach at Eau Claire Memorial High before matriculating to UW-Stevens Point and then UW-Green Bay prior to landing the Dairy State?s plum gig in Madison.

He immediately guided Wisconsin to the NIT. The next season, Bennett registered the program?s first winning Big Ten record since 1974-and just its second since 1954. There would be three NCAA tourney appearances highlighted by a stunning Final Four march in 2000 before Bennett abruptly stepped aside three games into the 2000-01 season because of burn out, leaving with a 93-69 record in six seasons.

Enter William Francis Ryan ? aka ?Bo.?

Like Bennett, Ryan was the ultimate dues-payer, working his way up the back channels of the sport. He didn?t get a plum head coaching job in his 30s because he had a famous last name. Nope. Ryan toiled at Pennsylvania high schools before landing as an assistant at Wisconsin from 1976-1984. There, he got an up-close look at the losing that enveloped Badger hoops.

Ryan left to become head coach at UW-Platteville, where he earned legendary status by winning four Division III national championships from 1984-99. Want more? UW-Platteville was the winningest NCAA men's basketball team of the 1990s (all divisions) with a 266-26 (.908) record. Two highly successful seasons as UW-Milwaukee followed before Ryan landed the Wisconsin job.

In the 2002-03, the Badgers won their first outright Big Ten regular-season title in 56 years and advanced to the Sweet 16. And things have been rolling ever since, as Ryan took the Badgers to the Final Four last year and already is the school?s all-time winningest coach. The only thing missing from his resume: A national title. And that may come this year.

Playing as a No. 1 seed for the first time, Wisconsin will take on No. 4 North Carolina on Thursday. The winner of No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 6 Xavier will wait in the West Region final if the Badgers top the Tar Heels. Then, a date vs. No. 1 overall seed Kentucky figures to loom in the Final Four, the same Wildcats team that ended Wisconsin?s national title dreams in the Final Four last season.

"We're definitely excited and thrilled to be there, but we're not as in awe or shocked as we were last year," Nigel Hayes said after the Round of 32 win vs. Oregon. "Last year, we were jumping around up and down on the court, celebrating. This time, it was 'Hoo-rah, good job guys. We have the next game to take care of.' "

That quote explains how far this program has come.

It's safe to say Ryan and the Badgers, long an annual Big Ten contender, are now annual national contenders.

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.