Before the Bo Ryan era, the 16 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the establishment of Wisconsin as a basketball institution — Stu Jackson threw a whistle.
Jackson, the Badgers’ head coach from 1992-’94, flung the object across a near-empty gym during a heated practice, hitting an innocent bystander in the process.
Rather than cleaning up his mess himself, he enlisted the help of a young assistant to make amends.
That assistant was Stan Van Gundy. He would eventually go on to win more than 500 NBA games as a coach and reach an NBA finals in 2009 with the Orlando Magic, but at the time he was still cleaning up his boss’ messes.
‘“Stan, go over there and tell him I’m sorry,”’ former Wisconsin forward and current assistant coach Howard Moore remembers Jackson saying to the budding coach.
By August of 1994, Van Gundy had been elevated to head coach after Jackson left to be the general manager of the NBA’s new expansion team, the Vancouver Grizzlies. With his hands tied just months before the start of the season, Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter handed Van Gundy a five-year deal, but included a buyout option after one year in case things didn’t work out.
While Van Gundy’s role changed, his somewhat chummy, assistant coach personality had not.
He was still more likely to be the one to pick up the whistle than the one to throw it.
“In the college ranks, you have to divorce yourself [from the players],” Richter said, “you gotta be the one who lays down all the different rules.”
Van Gundy assumed the head coaching position at a pivotal time for Wisconsin’s basketball program.
For the first time in two generations, there were high expectations for the Badgers.
The season before, the team had earned its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1947, won 18 games and sold out every home game for the first time in school history. Despite losing point guard Tracy Webster, Van Gundy’s iteration of the team returned four starters, including future NBA star Michael Finley, and received a No. 17 preseason ranking.
Wisconsin had found success under Jackson by employing an uptempo style that featured “pressure defense and a fast-paced wide-open offense” according to the 1994-’95 season program.
“There aren’t a whole lot of players out there who want to walk the ball up the floor and play a halfcourt game,” Van Gundy was ironically quoted by the program as saying.
It was that affable, player-first personality that made him a hit with players as an assistant. According to the people who worked closely with him at Wisconsin, those qualities may have contributed to his demise.
Van Gundy watched as a team featuring three seniors in the starting lineup regressed defensively — allowing a middling 71.6 points per game defensively.
The former assistant was a teacher rather than a disciplinarian, and Van Gundy’s players seemed to be too comfortable with him.
“My feeling was that at that point in time in his career he was still operating more or less as the assistant,” Richter said. “He had a great relationship with all of the players, and I didn’t feel as we went along, elevated himself out of that role into the top person in order to make a clear cut decision in that regard.”
Even Van Gundy himself told the basketball program that he would “continue to work like an assistant coach” in the 1994-95 season, though he was referring to maintaining a high work ethic.
Van Gundy’s basketball mind was evident even then, but with Wisconsin, the fit was off.
According to Richter, Van Gundy could’ve had a better chance to keep his job if he displayed a more prototypical college head coaching style, but the ex-assistant had a personality far more suited to the NBA.
“I think he was also very good at connecting with players and connecting with personalities,” said Sean Daugherty, who was a freshman player during Van Gundy’s lone season at head coach. “That pro game, you’re connecting with a lot of huge egos that, arguably at least some of those guys are more concerned with getting their own stats than they are anything else. And he was pretty good with being able to connect with individual players.”
Van Gundy’s propensity for managing personalities and teaching made have made him a beloved NBA coach, but they didn’t quite work at Wisconsin.
Despite a talented roster and high expectations in Madison, Van Gundy fell short in Madison.
After beginning the season 6-1, the team stumbled to four straight losses and finished the season with a 7-11 conference record. Van Gundy’s final loss of the season, at Michigan State, kept the Badgers out of the NIT and ended his short tenure as head coach.
“We felt betrayed as players,” Daugherty, who was recruited by Van Gundy, said of the firing. “We felt like it was unfair for him. And there was a lot of uncertainty about what happens next.”
While Van Gundy was well-liked, he simply didn’t produce well enough for the athletic department to justify keeping a coach that they had inherited from Jackson’s tenure.
“We had too much talent to not have more success than what we had,” Daugherty said of that season.
So, what went wrong for Wisconsin?
It certainly wasn’t all Van Gundy’s fault.
For one, Wisconsin missed Tracy Webster, the former point guard who served as the pacemaker for the offense. With Webster replaced by sophomore Darnell Hoskins — who wound up transferring to Dayton the next season — the dynamic was different, Moore said.
“What he brought to the table kept everyone involved, everyone going, and he was the catalyst that we missed,” he said.
But Webster’s departure wasn’t the only issue. Daugherty believes that Wisconsin played too much through Finley, and in turn didn’t play good enough defense to offset their often stagnant offense.
“That’s one of the things I learned from Coach [Dick] Bennett my last three years, is you can struggle offensively and if you’ve got an exceptional defensive approach, you can make a lot of mistakes on offense and still be competitive,” Daugherty said. “And we didn’t have that same rigor that we probably could’ve had.”
None of the observers of that season had any doubt in Van Gundy’s basketball knowledge, while his work ethic and preparation were noted as equally impressive.
Yet Van Gundy was put in a difficult spot after being forced to turn from “good cop to bad cop” in replacing Jackson, and lasted just 27 games in charge.
Surprisingly, that move would work out well for both sides.
25 years on from the promotion of Van Gundy to head coach, the program looks nothing like the one he left.
About two weeks following Van Gundy’s dismissal, the plans to build the Kohl Center were announced, and by the time the next head coach, Dick Bennett, had finished his tenure, the decision to build the expensive stadium was fully justified by the team’s play.
Under Bennett, the Badgers adopted the slow, plodding style the team is still known for today and re-established itself as an NCAA tournament caliber squad. Bennett led defensively sound teams to three berths tournament berths -- including a Final Four in the 1999-00 season -- in his five full years as head coach.
After Bennett, the baton was handed to Bo Ryan, who famously brought the school to new heights in nearly 500 games coaching the Badgers, including a national runner-up finish in 2014-’15 season.
After his disappointing exit from Madison, Van Gundy also carved out a successful career, quickly rising to the pro ranks and perhaps silencing some of his detractors in Madison.
“That guy was extremely resilient and persistent,” Daugherty said. “And regardless of how you look at that one year with him on the sidelines, it was a necessary step and a meaningful step in what’s become a very successful career for him.
Over a long NBA career that started the same year Wisconsin fired him, Van Gundy first served as an assistant coach for the Miami Heat, before being promoted to head coach in South Beach and eventually serving the same role for the Magic and Pistons. But 523 wins and an NBA finals appearance later, there are likely still Midwesterners who remember Van Gundy as the out-of-depth, diet soda-guzzling coach who lasted just one season in Madison.
Even the man who fired him knows that is unwise.
“He gives you kind of a rumpled look a little bit,” Richter said. “Maybe the tie is crooked, the coat is maybe wrinkled or whatever. He just seems like a regular guy, which he is. That’s the kind of guy you wanna have a beer with. And I think there’s an awful lot behind that obviously, and he’s very successful. Don’t let those looks fool you, because in a game he’s very competitive and understands the game well, and you just can’t shortchange him a bit.”
Van Gundy’s exit from town unexpectedly launched the start of sustained success for both parties, on separate yet parallel paths.
“The journey to success is not linear,” Daugherty said.
And for Van Gundy, it went through Madison.