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MADISON - Head-to-head competition is nothing new to brothers Jeff and Greg Gard. Growing up in Cobb, WI, about 30 minutes north of Platteville and an hour west of Madison, the brotherly rivalry started, fittingly, around the basketball hoop in their parents’ yard.
“I use to kick his butt in the driveway when we were playing,” said Greg. “I’d block his shot every time, so tomorrow is nothing compared to the battles we use to have one-on-one in the driveway.”
Those pick-up games have led to some pretty good careers; career that will intersect Wednesday night when Wisconsin takes on UW-Platteville in an exhibition game at the Kohl Center.
In Greg's 13 seasons with the Badgers, he has helped Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan lead the program to three Big Ten regular season titles, two Big Ten tournament championships and 13 NCAA appearances, which include four Sweet 16 trips and an Elite Eight in 2005.
During Jeff’s first four seasons in Platteville, he has won 64 games, the most in school history in a coach’s first four years.
“It’s evident he’s done a great job,” said Greg of Jeff. “He gets his players involved in the community and treats his kids the right way.”
It’s evident that Glen and Connie raised a couple solid coaches, even if the pair didn’t start out that way.
Growing up as a family that did a lot of hunting and fishing, Greg was leaning more towards being a park ranger and be involved in state natural resources, instead of following in the family farming business, before catching the coaching and teaching bug. Jeff, who is seven years younger than Greg, was able to pick and choose what path he wanted to take by watching Greg and middle brother Garry.
“I was fortunate enough to have a passion for teaching and obviously for athletics to be able to get tied into the coaching field,” Jeff said. “I’ve had some great mentors along the way.”
Jeff counts four mentors who have had a direct impact on him. One is Paul Combs, the current head coach at Carroll University who he assisted in all of Combs’ six seasons at Platteville. Another is Jerry Petitgoue, the winningest coach in state history with 846 wins and 201 losses in 46 seasons, the last 42 at Cuba City.
With approximately 10 miles separating their classrooms, Jeff brings Petitgoue to his practices as often as he can and converse a couple times of month.
“He’s still a student of the game, as many years as he’s been in,” said Jeff, who spent three seasons working with Petitgoue. “He’s always asking, ‘What can I do against this?’ I say, ‘Coach, you have 800 wins in. I think you know what you’re doing.’ It’s always good just to pick his brain.”
But it’s hard to argue what Ryan and Gard have done for Jeff and his program. Ryan put himself on the coaching map during his 15 seasons at Platteville (1984-99), guiding the Pioneers to four national championships (1991, ’95, ’98 and ’99), eight conference titles and a 353-76 (.822) overall record.
But playing on the ‘Bo Ryan Court’ during all its home games is a huge advantage instead of a burden.
“It doesn’t matter where you go, even when we’re on the road playing across the country, everybody knows Platteville,” said Jeff. “From a division 3 standpoint, there is not one program in the country that gets the kind of publicity like Platteville does. Any time you go on ESPN, CBS or wherever, whenever you are watching Wisconsin basketball, it’s always brought up about Bo and his time at Platteville. It’s a tribute to what he did.”
“(Ryan’s) been a mentor to him, just like he has to me, even though they haven’t been on the same staff,” added Greg. “He’s always looked up to coach, respected what he’s done and what Bo did there will likely never be repeated anywhere. The numbers are gaudy the more you look at them.”
Greg, who has been Ryan’s associate head coach at Wisconsin since 2008, is widely considered one of the top assistant coaches in the country and has been tied to multiple job openings over the past three seasons.
Greg is also a master recruiter, having pulled Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor out of Minnesota, Traevon Jackson and Rob Wilson out of Ohio and convince Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Bronson Koenig and Keaton Nankivil, among others, to stay in-state.
“It’s always nice if I can live up to what Greg’s been doing,” said Jeff. “(Because we sound alike), we can always pull over a quick one on mom and dad when we’re on the phone. If I get lucky, maybe I can call one of his recruits and get him to commit to us over Wisconsin.”
Ryan has openly praised Greg on national television for his scouting reports (he also is handling Platteville’s scouting report) and with the work he does putting together Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule, calling him the “hardest working man in American” for putting together a schedule that is often considered one of the most challenging in the country.
In a span of eight days to open this season, Wisconsin opens against St. John’s in South Dakota, host No.8 Florida in the season opener and travel to Green Bay, picked by the Horizon League coaches to win the league.
“I can always bounce things off of Greg,” said Jeff. “It’s nice to know if we ever need anything or have any questions, we can call a guy that’s about an hour down the road.”
Jeff and Greg, who was down at Jeff’s press conference when his younger brother was introduced on June 9, 2009, still try to talk at least once a week.
“Coaching is a very tight fraternity,” said Greg. “There’s not a lot of branches coming off the tree sometimes. Sometimes it’s very tightly woven. Staffs that don’t work together still build relationships and have bonds. I’m very proud of him, but I’ve always stayed out of his way and let him do his own thing.”
They’ll be a lot closer during Wisconsin’s only exhibition game this season. The Badgers have been playing in-state schools since legislation was passed, with the help of Ryan, to play lower divisional schools instead of makeshift all-star teams beginning in the 2004-05 season.
Wisconsin has taken advantage by playing all nine teams in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) over that time frame, as well as other in-state schools and lower divisional schools from Minnesota.
The Badgers beat UW-Platteville, 78-44, in that 2004 season when both brothers were assistant coaches for their current schools.
This year’s exhibition might yield a slightly more competitive result. The Badgers return only two starters and add six freshmen to the mix. The Pioneers return four starters, including three-year starter at point guard in Stoughton-native Erik Gerber and All-American senior center Chas Cross, from a team which upset 10th-ranked UW-Stevens Point in the WIAC Tournament.
“It just makes sense for you to play a team that runs a system,” said Jeff, who said his team’s goal is to finish in the top half of the WIAC. “We use to play those Athletes in Action or those foreign teams, and you never knew what you had coming in, what they were going to run or maybe not have a system. Now you have those division 3 teams and division 2 programs that are running a system, have a philosophy in mind and you know what you are going to get when you put them on the floor. It’s great for both programs.”
Although the stage will be much bigger Wednesday, the Pioneers have come close to knocking off a division 1 program with Ryan ties, as Platteville lost to former Wisconsin assistant coach Howard Moore’s Illinois-Chicago team by seven in an exhibition last season.
“I’m excited for our players, and Coach Ryan would say the same thing,” said Jeff. “For our guys it’s an opportunity to go up and play against those Division 1s on a big stage.”
But with only a week into practice compared to a Wisconsin team that has been able to practice since August, Jeff is hoping his brother will spot him some points.
“I’ll spot him as many as I used to in the driveway,” said Greg, “which is zero.”