Fargo

They say things happen for a reason.

At least that’s what Will Ryan was telling himself more than two years ago when he lost his job as assistant men’s basketball coach at Ohio University.

That’s when Saul Phillips, the head coach Ryan worked for at Ohio for five years and at North Dakota State the previous seven years, was fired. Word is a supportive athletic director and Ohio’s new president didn’t see eye-to-eye on a few things. And the new president wanted a new coach.

As a result, Ryan and Phillips were looking for new jobs.

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Will Ryan, named the head men's basketball coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay earlier this month, was an assistant men's basketball coach at North Dakota State for seven seasons.     Wisconsin-Green Bay Athletics photo
Will Ryan, named the head men's basketball coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay earlier this month, was an assistant men's basketball coach at North Dakota State for seven seasons. Wisconsin-Green Bay Athletics photo

“We laugh about it now, but Saul and I were pretty much applying for the same jobs,” Ryan said.

But one job Saul did not apply for was at Wheeling University in West Virginia — an NCAA Division II school whose enrollment was dipping well below 1,000 students. When Ryan started his head coaching duties at Wheeling on July 1 of last summer, he had only five players from the previous year’s roster.

His team was picked to finish last in the 12-team Mountain East Conference. Ryan told his players the following: “I’m sure most of you know we were picked last. This is the only time I am going to talk about. We are not going to finish last. Mark my words.”

Wheeling ended up finishing in fifth place, posting a 14-13 overall record with a makeshift team that scrapped and clawed for every win.

They say things happen for a reason.

Ryan’s first head coaching season was impressive enough for him to land another head job — this time in his home state at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

“It’s been 13 years since I’ve been back in Wisconsin,” Ryan said. “It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. I’m ecstatic.”

In Wisconsin, the Ryan name is as beloved as a hunk of cheese and a bottle of beer. Ryan’s father, Bo, became a hall of fame basketball coach in Wisconsin — winning four national championships at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville and posting rare back-to-back winning seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Then in his 15 years at the University of Wisconsin, Bo reached the NCAA Division I Tournament 14 times with two Final Four appearances and one runnerup finish.

Will played for his dad at Platteville and one year at Milwaukee. He eventually worked for his dad at Wisconsin — two years as a video coordinator and two years as director of basketball operations.

“I was pretty spoiled,” Will said. “I was working at a Big Ten school in a city where I was born, being around family. It was pretty special. But I always wanted to be on the court and I missed that.”

They says things happen for a reason.

This time, Phillips — who also played and coached for Bo — was named the new head coach at NDSU. He asked Will to become one of his assistants.

“I knew his background and I knew he knew the game,” said Phillips, who is now the head coach at Division II Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D. “He is a very good recruiter and has done a ton of game prep and player development. It’s in his genes to be pretty good at getting a player to get better.”

Ryan, to this day, has fond memories of his stay in Fargo.

His two oldest boys, Owen (now 12 years old) and Liam (now 10), were both born in Fargo. His youngest son, Callen (6), was born in Ohio, but got his name from a Fargo billboard advertising Callen Furniture that Will often noticed.

On the court with the Bison, Will helped the team advance to four postseason tournaments, including an opening-round upset over Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament. He also tutored two Summit League Players of the Year in Taylor Braun and Lawrence Alexander.

Then it was off to Ohio with Saul, where they inherited a group that didn’t quite fit their system — one that was a result of both of them learning so much from Bo Ryan.

“With a guy like Will, you literally have watched one of the best basketball coaches that there ever was for your entire childhood,” Phillips said.

Bo knows basketball like: Getting ball to rim and getting to the free throw line, stressing and working on fundamentals every day, taking care of the ball, taking high-percentage shots, controlling the tempo of the game, sharing the ball and learning from game film.

“You do those things and you are going to have a chance to win most times,” Will said. “My dad wasn’t an analytical kind of guy and Saul wasn’t either.”

But as successful as Bo’s basketball philosophy became, it did not factor in injuries. Saul and Will will tell you that almost every key player they had at Ohio during their last three seasons was severely injured.

“Did we do something to upset the basketball gods?” Will said. “It was pretty scary.”

They say things happen for a reason.

Will relied on what he learned from his dad and Phillips to produce that winning season at Wheeling. Now he’s hoping to use the same philosophy at Green Bay — where he will inherit Horizon League freshman of the year, guard Amari Davis, and junior guard PJ Pipes.

“The cupboard certainly isn’t bare,” Will said. “There are some tools to work with there.”

They say things happen for a reason.

With his recent move, Will is near family again. His wife Emily grew up 43 minutes from Green Bay in Neenah. His older sister and youngest sister live 2 1/2 hours away in Madison. And his dad Bo and mother Kelly live in Madison, in a condo only 10 minutes from the Kohl Center where Bo won so many games.

“He is already talking about driving up to see what we have coming back for this team,” Will said. “He never really shows much emotionally but I can tell that he is excited.”

And what kind of advice did Bo offer Will.

“Usually, his advice is ‘underpromise and overdeliver,’” Will said. “Those are words I have always lived by.”

That and realizing things happen for a reason.