July 25, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- When Greg Gard answered the ad in the local shopping news - "Wanted: junior high basketball coach" - he had no idea that it would be his first step on the path to becoming a Big Ten assistant.
Back then, Gard was just a 19-year-old UW-Platteville sophomore who was looking to make a few bucks and fill a competitive void in his life. "Something was missing," he said.
Although he played three sports at Iowa-Grant High School, he knew that he wasn't going to make the jump to the Division III level, though he did go out for baseball and ended up getting cut.
While paying his way through school, he still had to address his hunger for competition. "Other college students were bagging groceries," he said. "I wanted to coach. I didn't do it for the money."
Gard interviewed and got the job. In teaching basketball to eighth graders, 13 and 14-year-olds, he put an emphasis on honing his organizational skills and developing good habits among the players.
"I reflected back on what it was like for me as an athlete at that age," he said. "There were things I liked and didn't like. I had a coach who yelled constantly in junior high and I didn't like it."
When Gard was an eighth grader he attended the Steve Yoder summer basketball camp in Madison. That's when he first came under the positive influence of Bo Ryan, a Yoder assistant.
Years later, when they crossed paths again - Gard was a UW-Platteville student and Ryan was then the Pioneers head coach - Ryan actually remembered Gard as a camper.
When Ryan heard that Gard was coaching an eighth-grade team, he recommended his book on the Swing offense. "We did a lot of things coach Ryan was doing at Platteville," Gard said. "We ran the Swing, we were pressing, we played a lot of guys and we were kind of mini-Pioneers, so to speak."
At about the same time, Gard attended a Bob Knight clinic in Indiana with a group of coaches from Southwestern High School. Gard was helping out with the Southwestern varsity team coached by Jim Nedelcoff, a Hall of Famer, whose son, Jon, played for and coached under Ryan with the Pioneers.
Gard had another link to Ryan - the late Steve Randall who coached Gard at Iowa-Grant High School. Randall and Ryan were friends and it didn't take long for Gard to enter the Ryan inner circle largely through his work during Ryan's summer camps in Platteville.
When Nedelcoff retired from coaching at Southwestern, it created an opportunity for Gard to expand his frame of reference elsewhere which he did by becoming a volunteer assistant to Ryan. He also assisted at Platteville High School, where Ryan's son, Will, was a freshman basketball player.
While juggling both assignments, Gard went on to earn his undergraduate degree, which led to some career options; coaching offers from North Dakota State, Sam Houston State and Wayne State. "But Coach Ryan kept coming back with reasons why I should stay at Platteville," Gard said.
So he stayed, trusting it would enhance his chances for advancement "up the coaching ladder" despite starting from the bottom rung - the rung where he was volunteering his time and services. Gard had bills to pay so he managed a fitness center on campus and subbed as a teacher.
Ryan's practices tend to be classrooms and Gard flourished in the setting.
"The one thing about Coach Ryan is that he's extremely loyal," he said. "That's why the players play so hard for him. You don't see the attrition or the revolving door you see in other programs. He's hard on them. He's demanding. But, deep down, he cares for them and has his player's backs."
When Rob Jeter (now at UWM) left Platteville for an assistant's job at Marquette, it created a full-time opening for Gard on Ryan's staff. Their friendship and basketball partnership has blossomed ever since. "I felt like I kept growing year after year with more responsibilities," said Gard.
Less than three years ago, Gard was named the UW's associate head coach to Ryan - another rung on the ladder and step on their journey from Platteville to UW-Milwaukee to Madison. The 40-year-old Gard has excelled as a recruiter and is viewed among the top assistants in college basketball.
What does it take to be a good recruiter? "It's all about relationships and communication," Gard said. "The biggest thing is treating people the right way. One of the things that I've been able to do is gain people's trust. I don't just show up on a high school coach's door when he has a great player."
Instead, he cultivates the relationship between college recruiter and prep coach. "I'll call them, write them notes, check in on them even when they may not have a player we're recruiting," he said. "I'll watch practice, and help them any way I can because I always try to give back more than I get."
On his first recruiting trip for Platteville, Gard learned a lesson from another Ryan assistant, Todd Landrum. "He told me, `You understand that we're not going to get this done tonight,'" Gard related of their conversation in the car on their way to Monroe to see Brett Davis. "It's a long process."
Davis wound up saying "no" to the Pioneers and ended up playing basketball at UW-Oshkosh (Davis later went into politics and is former state representative from Oregon.)
"You can develop a great relationship with a kid and the people around him - his parents and coaches," Gard said. "You can pour your heart and soul into it. But the problem is so is everybody else. Your competition is doing the same thing. How long the process can be has always stuck with me."
Gard has enjoyed tremendous success recruiting the state of Minnesota for the Badgers. The current roster is reflective of his high batting average there: Jordan Taylor is from Bloomington, Jon Leuer is from Orono, Mike Bruesewitz is from St. Paul and Jared Berggren is from Princeton.
Gard credited his wife, Michelle, an elementary school principal in Oregon, for making his coaching job easier. Especially when he's on the road. She not only manages her own career but their three young kids at home. "There's no way I could do what I do without her," he said.
Maybe the biggest influence on shaping his recruiting demeanor has been his dad, Glen Gard, who was a loan officer for Farm Credit. Ag lending can be challenging. "My dad wasn't fancy or flashy - he didn't try to wow anybody," he said. "It was about relationships and building a huge trust."
Glen and Connie Gard raised their three boys in Cobb, a tiny community which straddles Highway 18, near Dodgeville. Cobb is smaller than the UW marching band. "It was a neat place to grow up," Greg said. "But don't blink when you go through it, you'll miss most of it."
In 2008, Connie retired after working as a secretary for 44 years at Iowa Grant High School. Glen is part-time these days. The Gards still live in Cobb - in a new subdivision. Middle son Gary manages a grain elevator in Cambria. Youngest son Jeff is the head basketball coach at UW-Platteville.
Greg's door is always open to Jeff if he wants to talk X's and O's. Or if he just wants to talk. "I'm brutally honest with him," he said. "But I've really tried to leave him alone."
That's so he can come up with his own identity as a coach. Not unlike Greg Gard who spent a lot of time as a youngster on his grandparent's farm just outside of Cobb. "It was a great place to get a base for responsibilities and a work ethic," he said. "Things which have formed who I am today."