Exit Interview: Bo Ryans

As March Madness arrives this month (and with it, a sharp decline in office productivity), the Philly coach with the best shot at an NCAA basketball championship is actually in Wisconsin: Chester native Bo Ryan, whose Badgers are among the tourney’s

Exit Interview: As soon as you open your mouth, it’s obvious you’re not from Wisconsin. Any vocal exercises you perform to maintain your Philly accent?
Bo Ryan: [laughs] I’ve been here 32 years now. I’ve actually spent more of my life here than in Pennsylvania. People in the Midwest really don’t have an accent. Don’t mention cheesesteaks, though. I haven’t had lunch yet, I’m hungry.

EI: Still have a soft spot for cheese-steaks after all these years?
BR: Boy, do I. Every time I’m on vacation and go to Sea Isle City, I gain 10 pounds. I got my parents a place about a mile from the beach. I go out there a couple weeks every summer. I’d like to get back more. Somethin’ about the Jersey Shore growing up, when we were able to go from Chester to the beach.

EI: I heard your friends from the old Chester days have colorful nicknames—Chuckles, Joey the Steak, something like that?
BR: “Bo” comes from a boxer, because of some things I got into on the playground. I got straight A’s but a D in conduct. It’s like 1954, and my uncle got a TV. Every Friday night was the Gillette Friday Night Fights, so everybody’d go to my Uncle Teddy’s. One of my other uncles is Snake. These are true! [laughs]

EI: “Uncle Snake”?
BR: I called him Uncle Jack, but his nickname was Snake. He was a ranger in Korea. He’d come to family functions and show us 10 ways you could kill somebody with your hands.

EI: Sounds like a typical Chester family gathering.
BR: [laughs] Snapper was the chief of police in Chester. Uncle Snap. So the uncles are having a few beverages and the kids are having their Frank’s cream soda. The boxing match that comes up is Carl “Bobo” Olson. My Uncle Teddy goes, “We’re gonna call you Bobo, ’cause you think you’re a fighter.” Then I’m in school with Iggy, Smooth Sailin’, Pus Head. He was also Bear, but he became Pus Head. Kids, we were cruel to each other. There was Onions, Looty, Bugsy. Everybody had nicknames. I can’t remember calling people Bob, Tom, Harry.

EI: When you look at your coaching accomplishments, do you think you get the credit you deserve?
BR: [Sports Illustrated columnist] Rick Reilly said, “You have an agent, right?” Rick, look, c’mon. I don’t have an agent. I have a lawyer to do my contracts, gotta have one’a those. But I’m a teacher and a coach. It’s not about marketing. If your team is on the left-hand side [the win column], your program will always be noticed. Bryant Gumbel and Real Sports is coming in, ABC is coming in. But to get a call from Philadelphia magazine, this is the best! [laughs] You must have a slow month!

EI: You’re more than just a coach. Are you aware of your celebrity on YouTube?
BR: Somebody told me they’ve got the hambone on there.
EI: Oh, they’ve got the hambone. It’s been viewed about 7,500 times.
BR: The black families that came to the Chester area from the South, their ancestors were not allowed to have musical instruments. Everything was with hands, stomping, stepping. So here I am, playing on the playground, and I see a guy doing this hand thing. I said, I gotta try that. We’re in Franklin Elementary School, so me and some other guys did a little routine. I’ve got good hands and a little bit of rhythm. We got an A in music class for the hambone. I was talking to a producer from ESPN, something about talent came up, some coach plays piano or somethin’. I said the only thing I got is the hambone!

EI: When tournament time comes around, does some clown always hit you up for advice on his office pool?
BR: Yeah, and you know what? The people who win are the people who don’t know much about basketball and go by the mascot. When they ask, I always say, “What’s your favorite color?” [pauses; unexpected topic change ahead] And are you aware of the Vince Papale thing?

EI: Um, actually, no.
BR: Vince and I played together in a very rough touch football league around Tinicum, just outside of South Philly. We won the championship. I’ve got the movie [Invincible] at home. I’m going to wait until basketball season is over to put it in. I asked him if they took liberties with the movie. I can’t tell you what he said. [laughs] But if you talk to him, ask him how rough that league was. They kept an ambulance in the end zone.

EI: You also played football against Reggie Jackson, right?
BR: I still have two cleat marks on my rib cage. He stepped on me at Cheltenham High. I had to tell my football team I couldn’t play because I was going to basketball camp. I go to the camp and who do I get as my coach? It was a sophomore from Rutgers—[legendary coach] Jim Valvano.

EI: You’re like the Kevin Bacon of sports—six degrees of Bo Ryan. Would you ever want to come back and coach a Big Five team?
BR: That would be great, but this is where I’m retiring. I’ve already had some other offers that were pretty good, but the Wisconsin people have been so good to me. You’ve got one of the funniest guys in Phil Martelli. I know Jay [Wright], I know all those guys. The last time I played on the outdoor courts in Avalon, I tried to take a charge on Dunph [Temple coach Fran Dunphy]. He drove me back into a pole by the fence. [laughs]

EI: Let’s end on a personal note. In Reilly’s SI column, he said you’re such a b.s. artist, you talked your wife out of marrying someone else so she could hitch up with you. True?
BR: That was embellished! [laughs] It’s partially true. She was gonna get married, but I didn’t do anything. Some things developed, and it was, well, if you’re not sure, better wait. Then things just worked out differently. We didn’t get married until at least two months later—just kidding. [laughs]