It was a move nobody saw coming.
Green Bay athletic director Charles Guthrie, with the blessing of new UWGB chancellor Michael Alexander, decided to part ways with his fairly successful men’s basketball coach Linc Darner back on May 17th after five seasons leading the Phoenix. Darner was 92-80 over that span and led Green Bay to the NCAA Tournament in 2016 for the first time in 20 years.
He won 20+ games in two of his five seasons and had just one losing season – in 2017-18 after losing a pair of high profile transfers – and finished third or fourth in four of his five seasons.
Despite those results (and a renegotiated contract that Guthrie and Darner agreed to in August of 2018 that included an automatic one year contract extension for finishing in the top four of the Horizon League standings) the decision was made to move on and take the program in another direction.
It’s a huge gamble to take for a program that has had relative coaching stability over most of its existence. There is no guarantee that the results will be better with another coach. Plus, the financial hit of removing Darner with six years left on his deal comes with a sizable price tag: at least $720,000 guaranteed over three years with the possibility that it increases to $960,000 when it’s all said and done according to the terms of the buyout, plus having to pay the new coach as well.
But with Green Bay’s game attendance in a tail spin – average attendance dropped below 2,000 fans per game this season for the first time since 1986 and is down a whopping 46% since Brian Wardle’s final season in 2015 – with fan engagement down and a relative indifference toward the program, Guthrie and Alexander apparently felt the cost of not making a change would be greater than keeping things at the status quo.
“The question is that over the life of the contract, we saved 30 to 50 percent over the life of the contract,” Alexander told Scott Venci of the Green Bay Press Gazette when asked about spending over $400,000 combined on men’s basketball coaches over the next three years. “I believe that we have to be great financial stewards of our resources, and that’s one of our primary jobs.”
He seems to basically be saying that the school couldn’t afford to not fire Darner.
Add it all together and you have fan indifference plus a program seemingly stuck on the treadmill – the Phoenix finished the regular season 17-16, 17-16, and 13-20 (47-52 total) over the past three seasons – in addition to being stuck in a self-inflicted bad contract and you begin to see why the administration felt the need to gamble and make a change.
So now Will Ryan is the man who will attempt to give the Phoenix program a much needed jolt. At first glance it may be hard to see the rationale for dumping a fairly successful Division I coach for a coach who finished 14-13 in his only season as a head coach at a Division II program. But dig a little deeper and you find that he took over at Wheeling University in West Virginia on July 1st of last year and took on a major rebuild project with only 5 players on the roster, leading a team picked last in the 12-team Mountain East Conference to a 5th place finish.
A similar scenario could play out in Green Bay if there is more roster turnover due to the coaching change. The Phoenix only have four scholarship players slated to return from last season – PJ Pipes, Will Chevalier, Amari Davis, and Japannah Kellogg, plus redshirt walk-on Lucas Stieber – after seeing Trevian Bell, Manny Patterson, and Tank Hemphill transfer out. Redshirt senior Josh Jefferson is also in the transfer portal but could still return to Green Bay next season.
So far only one player from the Phoenix large incoming recruiting class has de-committed – 6’5” JUCO guard Leon Ayers recently committed to Mercer – but that could change with a new coaching staff and a new style of play which means Ryan may need to re-recruit some of these players.
Even without any further roster turnover Ryan will have at least two scholarship spots to fill which is a tough task this late in the offseason even during normal circumstances, not to mention during a global pandemic that has halted AAU events across the country and led to the NCAA extending the recruiting dead period into July.
But he checks a lot of boxes that point to him being able to have success in Green Bay. Ryan is a Wisconsin native that won two national titles at UW-Platteville as a player with his father Bo as the head coach. He knows the state basketball landscape well which should help with in-state recruiting, his name has cachet among casual sports fans in the area which should help the program gain some positive buzz and hopefully attendance, and he plays a style of play – swing offense, hard-nosed defense – that Phoenix fans seem to be a little more comfortable with.
In addition to his one season as a head coach at Wheeling, Ryan has been a volunteer assistant and video coordinator for his dad at Wisconsin and has been an assistant coach at the mid-major level at North Dakota State and Ohio.
“Hiring leaders is about getting the right fit at the right time and I have no doubt that Coach Ryan is exactly the right person to lead our program today and into the future” Guthrie said in a statement announcing the hire. “Will’s overall body of work as a collegiate coach has been remarkable and I believe that experience will serve us tremendously well as he embarks on his tenure at GB.”
The hire of Linc Darner in 2015 after Wardle left for Bradley was a gamble in its own right. He didn’t have any obvious ties to the state and played a unique up-tempo style that was meant to be exciting and attract recruits to Green Bay that may not have come in the past. The gamble paid off with the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 20 years back in 2016 but had become a bit stale ever since then.
Now Guthrie and company are hoping for even bigger returns on this gamble: building a program that can consistently compete for regular season championships and NCAA Tournament bids. And while it’s a big gamble considering all the money that was paid, they are hoping that a return to state of Wisconsin roots with more conventional Wisconsin-style basketball will pay dividends both on and off the court.
Despite it’s perceived lack of resources, Green Bay’s men’s basketball program has been punching above its weight ever since its inception and has had more success on the court than any other Horizon League program according to KenPom.com.
With a coach in Ryan that has proven he can do more with less, the Phoenix appear to have found a coach to get the program back on track and make the gamble worth it.