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$705 and a mischievous 8th-grade team: Greg Gard's path to Big Ten Coach of the Year started 30 years ago at Southwestern

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$705 and a mischievous 8th-grade team: Greg Gard's path to Big Ten Coach of the Year started 30 years ago at Southwestern

There weren’t many applicants for the Southwestern eighth-grade boys basketball coaching job in the fall of 1990, as Bill Taylor remembers it, and the field was whittled down even further when a couple of them didn’t bother returning his calls.

That made the search not all that different from others for Taylor, who at the time was the athletic director for the small school district that borders both Illinois and Iowa but is centered in Hazel Green, Wisconsin. Filling junior high spots rarely was an easy process and Taylor typically would cross his fingers and hope someone locally would step up and remove the stress from his decision.

Enter Greg Gard, who had answered an advertisement for the position in the local shopper. Gard was 19, a sophomore at UW-Platteville who had been cut from the Pioneers baseball team. He was willing, and that in itself checked off a big box as far as Taylor was concerned.

But Gard had other qualities that appealed to Taylor. For starters, Gard was raised on a farm. That meant something to Taylor, whose wife grew up in that culture. Taylor’s other first impressions of Gard: The native of Cobb, another speck on the map about 35 miles northeast of Hazel Green, was bright and determined.

It was a no-brainer hire, and it wouldn’t be the last time Gard made life easier on an athletic director. More than 2½ decades later, Gard did so well as a mid-season replacement for Bo Ryan that it spared Barry Alvarez the trouble of conducting a national search for a new University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach at the end of the 2015-16 campaign.

Why bother? Alvarez had found his coach. Taylor had the same feeling 30 years ago, and he only felt more secure in his decision with every visit he’d make to watch Gard’s first team play.

“He was a confident person,” Taylor said. “He tried to instill in them the right attitude. It didn’t matter if they won or lost, he was still teaching every day. I thought, ‘He’s going to be a good one someday.’ I really did, I thought that.”

Gard, who turns 50 next month, enters his fifth full season running the UW program as the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year. The Badgers are 101-57 overall and 59-35 in the Big Ten under Gard, a conference winning percentage (.628) that trails only Michigan State (.734) and Purdue (.702) during that span.

There’s reason to believe things can get even better. UW began the 2020-21 campaign ranked No. 7 in the nation and hungry to build off last season, which ended with the Badgers winning the final eight games of the regular season to secure a share of the Big Ten title. The team will be led by six seniors, but Gard and his staff have a crop of young talent waiting in the wings after securing solid recruiting classes in back-to-back years.

It’s enough to make a guy forget where he started, but Gard hasn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Back in the spring of 2016, after Alvarez had removed the interim tag and made him the full-time coach, Gard delivered an opening statement at his introductory news conference that mostly was filled with people he wanted to thank.

Among the many names on that list was Taylor, the man who offered him $705 payable at the completion of that 1990-91 season. Gard, who now makes over $2 million annually at UW, still has a copy of that Southwestern contract.

“Did I ever have this in mind as a goal? No,” Gard said, looking back at getting his coaching start 30 years ago. “At that point in time, it was kind of a hobby. It was part chasing a passion, part earning a little bit of a paycheck to go through college instead of working in a grocery store bagging groceries or whatever else was going to be a part-time job.

“I’ve never said, ‘Hey, five years I’ve got to be here.’ I’ve always tried to make it about the team and the place that I’m at right now. And I had a blast doing that. That was a lot of fun coaching those guys.”

‘Who the hell is this guy?’

Every once in a while, someone will ask Jason Piddington about his link to Gard.

Piddington was on that Southwestern team and now works in public relations for the UW-Platteville athletic department. When people want to know what he believes Gard learned during that rookie season years ago, Piddington has a one-word answer ready:

“Patience,” he said.

Indeed, Gard admits the high school girls he coached in the spring — he agreed to help Taylor run a fledgling Southwestern softball program in addition to the basketball gig — listened better than a group of middle-school boys that included Piddington. Maybe that’s why Gard has said on more than one occasion that he was much better coaching softball than basketball back then.

Or perhaps Gard just was being humble. Teenage boys aren’t the easiest to impress, but Gard made an impact on more than one player from that group.

“He wasn’t inheriting a great team,” said Kurt Haverland, who now lives in Windsor. “We were pretty raw. We were never real good. Let me put it this way: He was a damn good coach, even in his first year.”

Haverland doesn’t remember many specifics from that season in terms of wins and losses, but there are details that stand out three decades later. Like the first day of practice, when Haverland and his teammates entered the gymnasium now used by elementary school children in Hazel Green and saw a stranger wearing traditional coaching garb: a blue pullover with a whistle hanging around his neck.

“I’m like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ ” Haverland said.

It felt like a new experience for Haverland and his teammates who, to that point, mostly had been coached in organized sports by a dad or older brother of someone on the team. That familiarity bred mischief, according to Haverland, and left Gard with a task that went beyond coaching Xs and Os after making the 15-mile journey down Highway 80 each day after classes at Platteville.

“He wasn’t really inheriting the most well-behaved crew, that’s for sure,” Haverland said. “Really the thing that I remember the most about him was right away he taught us some discipline, that’s for sure. The inmates weren’t necessarily running the asylum once we met Greg Gard. There was a new sheriff in town, so to speak.”

This isn’t a fairytale where the new coach molds a group of misfits into champions, but Piddington said the Wildcats came close. They went from not very good at the beginning of the season to finishing second in a tournament at Iowa-Grant, where Gard had attended high school.

“We kept on listening to him and he kept on pushing and harping on the little things but never really had to yell at us, even though he had every opportunity,” Piddington said. “He could have blown up at us many, many times at practice when we were goofing off. But he was just patient and stuck with what he wanted to do as a plan to make us better.”

Proud fans

While Taylor gets credit for hiring Gard, there was another man in Hazel Green who quickly became a fan. Jim Nedelcoff was in the midst of a successful high school coaching career in his hometown — he was inducted into both the football and basketball state halls of fame — and was a frequent visitor to watch games involving the middle schoolers who eventually would play for him on the Southwestern varsity team.

Gard eventually moved up as well, becoming an assistant on Nedelcoff’s staff. The next person Gard thanked after Taylor at his introductory news conference was Nedelcoff, who was in attendance. Nedelcoff died last year after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

“I do think that Jim saw something in him right away,” Haverland said.

So did others, including Ryan. It was while working at UW-Platteville summer camps that Gard’s attention to detail made a favorable first impression on Ryan, who first helped him land a job at Platteville High School and decided after a year there that it was time for Gard to join Ryan’s staff at a burgeoning NCAA Division III powerhouse.

From Platteville, Ryan brought along Gard to Milwaukee and finally Madison. While Ryan’s announcement during the summer of 2015 that he’d be retiring after one more season at UW was shocking, the predictable part of that two-paragraph statement was that he wanted Gard to be his successor.

“I just never had a doubt because he always took care of every detail,” Ryan said, “and then even went beyond that.”

As Gard begins his fourth decade in coaching, all that remains of that first season at Southwestern are memories. Tracking down a team picture proved to be a challenging endeavor that ultimately was fruitless.

No matter. The Wildcats don’t need pictures to verify how much delight they feel for the coach who once led them.

“It gives you a small sense that you had something to do with it, even though you really didn’t,” Piddington said. “You take pride in seeing how he’s succeeded and grown as a coach and gotten to where he is. He’s earned everything that he’s got.”

After serving as Southwestern’s AD for seven years, Taylor moved into another field. He sells, hauls and installs wall padding for Sports Graphics, a company based in Iowa.

When Gard had a new building constructed on his property to house a workout room and halfcourt gymnasium, he called Taylor to install pads. When the Badgers won at Indiana to complete their remarkable run to the Big Ten title last March, one of the many congratulatory text messages he received was from Taylor.

The man who hired him 30 years ago just wanted Gard to know he was proud of everything he’d accomplished during a season that required the UW coach to endure a lot on and off the court. That the Badgers’ season ended with a championship was further proof to Taylor that his initial instincts were accurate: Gard was a good one.

“It just takes a little bit of time for the cream to rise to the top,” Taylor wrote in the text, “and you’re the cream.”

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