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IN THE next 800 words, you're going to meet my new favorite coach. But first you have to guess who he is.
Hint No. 1: Nobody in any division of college basketball won a higher percentage of his games (.908) in the '90s than he did.
Hint No. 2: Now he's got the highest winning percentage (.706) in Big Ten games of any coach in league history—minimum five years—and, yep, that includes Bobby Freakin' Knight.
Hint No. 3: If you stood him next to North Carolina's Roy Williams, you'd be looking at the two guys who have the highest winning percentages among coaches with more than 500 wins. Yet people would mob Williams for his autograph—and ask to borrow this guy's Sharpie.
I swear, you've never met anybody like him. He could talk the freckles off Opie. He once persuaded an engaged woman into calling off her wedding and marrying him instead. Thirty-two years later she's still convinced. And he can flat coach. With his patented Swing offense and his obsession with detail, he could win 20 games a year with five large parking meters. He's the most unheralded winning machine in the country and headmaster of the No. 2--ranked Badgers.
But that's not why he's my new favorite.
He's not a walking haircut, with every word he utters scripted by some VP of Athletic Communications. And he's not some wonder kid groomed under Legend A to replace Legend B and become Legend C. Ryan has socks older than Billy Donovan.
This is a guy who was a stateside Army MP during the Vietnam War, breaking up fights in Augusta, Ga., bars. "It was always the same," says Ryan, 59. "One group was saying 'great taste' and the other 'less filling.'" He also escorted convicted felons to Leavenworth. Before every trip, he'd slap a set of handcuffs on his own wrist and on the inmate's, wrinkle up his face like Christopher Walken and go, "There's a reason they picked me, y'know. I won the platoon pistol-shooting championship." That was true. What he didn't mention was that the .45 in his holster was empty.
Growing up in Chester, Pa., Ryan was so hyper that his mom put him in first grade a year early because he was driving her nuts. At Chester High, he was the only white guy on the basketball team his senior year. He still has the scar Reggie Jackson's football cleats left on him in a game against Cheltenham High. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of '60s and '70s R&B. Can name you the song, artist and flip side of any Motown record, usually in five notes or less. You think recruits' moms don't like him?