In-depth with Borseth and Ryan
By Greg Bates
GREEN BAY – Every once in a while, Green Bay men’s basketball coach Will Ryan gets a knock on his office door.
On the other side is Kevin Borseth, the Phoenix women’s basketball coach, whose office is next to Ryan’s inside the Kress Events Center.
“I knock on his door and say, ‘What do you think of this? Would this work at your level?’” Borseth said. “And we both laugh about it and move on.”
“He’ll open up my whiteboard cabinet, and the whiteboard’s on the inside, and he’ll draw things up,” Ryan chimed in. “‘What do you think about this?’ And then we kind of bounce ideas off of each other that way.”
Sometimes Ryan will make his way into Borseth’s longtime office.
“I am jealous of the table in his office,” Ryan said. “He’s got the little circular pieces with the 1-5 and then he’s got the ball and he can diagram plays.”
“My desk is a court,” Borseth added. “It goes up and down and it’s got the plays.”
“I might have to get one of those,” Ryan joked.
The Press Times was granted a rare sit-down interview simultaneously with Borseth and Ryan on Oct. 10. It certainly wasn’t easy to lock down a time that worked for both the busy coaches.
Borseth and Ryan enjoyed discussing their relationship, their visions of their programs and how success can breed success within the entire Green Bay athletic department.
Building their programs
The 68-year-old, wily veteran coach, Borseth is in his second stint at Green Bay and his 19th season overall. He’s won 15 Horizon League regular-season championships and 12 Horizon League tournament titles; he has been named Horizon League coach of the year eight times.
Borseth has an eye-popping record of 454-131 with the Phoenix and an overall record during his 35 years as a Division I and II coach of 766-301.
The 44-year-old Ryan, the son of College Basketball Hall of Fame coach Bo Ryan, is in his third season at the helm in Green Bay. In his first two years, he amassed a record of 13-42.
While Borseth has been a head coach at the collegiate level for nearly as many years as Ryan has been alive, Ryan is just getting his feet wet.
“My situation’s different from Will in a sense that I’ve been here for a long period of time and we’re established,” said Borseth, who has only experienced two losing seasons in 35 years coaching Division I and II programs. “Not to say that we’ve arrived, because we haven’t, but at least we’ve had some success over a long period of time that has some type of a road map. Will got here and he had to deal with COVID, he had to deal with coaching someone else’s players, he had to deal with the transfer portal and for him it’s been difficult. I can’t even fathom what it would feel like to have to do that.
“I sure hope that I can chuckle about swimming upstream, as they say,” Ryan said. “(Kevin’s) a hall of fame coach. He’s had a lot of success and he’s done it the right way. He’s done it with local athletes, for the most part. That’s kind of our plan. When I took over, I wanted to recruit mostly Wisconsin kids and I’d said, ‘You’ve got to have a fence around the state, but a gate open to bringing kids from elsewhere.’ We’ve done that through the junior college route, but some of our junior college kids are Midwest kids with ties to the area. So, definitely a great model that he’s established and we try to emulate that in our own way. It’s always in my blood, the way my dad built his programs with mostly local student-athletes. The goal is to get their friends and family and communities to come support us and grow this thing.”
Borseth and Ryan have very similar approaches in the way they run their programs and what they want out of their players.
Borseth has built the women’s program up by recruiting high-character players who are hard-working, play relentless defense and are primarily local, in-state players. Ryan is certainly trying to mirror that approach with the men’s program.
“I think that kind of embodies Midwest basketball,” Ryan said. “This region is blue-collar athletes that just get after it and they’re stingy on defense, try to outwork your opponent. It’s nice to score some points too, and we’ve struggled in that area, but we’re getting better. We’ve got some better shooters, and so we’re trending upwards in that area.”
Added Borseth: “Both of us are trying to build programs that our fans like and appreciate. It’s all about those people that support you. We want a lot of people to come watch. Ultimately, it benefits us from a local standpoint because a lot of families can come and watch, because we are family-orientated, and the closer you grab, the better you are. I think Will’s statement of putting a fence around and leaving gates open was pretty good. That was a very good statement, but it’s getting more complicated. I think with the fact that the players, at least for women’s basketball, the volume of players now is far greater at a younger age and the players are getting exposed to a lot of different areas on the map. But our ultimate goal is to grab players that we’ve seen a lot. We can see a player 20 miles out our door, we can see them a lot. We get to know them well, as opposed to getting someone that’s a far distance where we only get to see them one time or maybe two times, we really don’t have that same connection. At the end of the day, you want players that fit your mold and want to be here and players that you can coach and are good teammates. And, D, all the above.
“I think our programs are similar in a sense that we are trying to retain, we’re trying to develop, we’re trying to graduate. Whereas we have a big plan in mind for these players and it’s not a one-and-done for us. I firmly believe Will’s on the exact same page, because we’re cut from the same cloth.”
With Green Bay being a mid-major college at the Division I level, programs are smaller and coaches have more interaction with one another as opposed to power-5 conference schools.
Borseth and Ryan feel a bond as coaches with Phoenix athletics because of their similarities with their programs.
“I think we definitely have some of the same hurdles with our programs,” Ryan said. “It is nice to talk to Coach and his staff about those hurdles and how they’ve overcome a lot of them. We’re still so new here — still in the infancy stages, just getting through COVID and all that. We’re still asking questions every day how to navigate those waters, and (the women’s coaches have) done a phenomenal job of helping lead the way.”
“We get along well together,” Borseth said. “I think our staffs get along together. There are obviously times where you run into one another and is it a charge or a block, but it goes with the territory. But for the most part, there’s a great deal of respect between both programs, coaches, players alike, and the fact that we are so close in proximity to everything, there needs to be that.”
After his first stint at Green Bay from 1998-2007, Borseth went on to the University of Michigan to coach the women’s basketball program. He had success in the program, but after five seasons, he wanted to come back to Green Bay to be closer to family.
Borseth said he learned some valuable lessons while coaching in the Big Ten Conference.
“The importance of words,” Borseth said. “How you choose to express yourself, how you choose how to say things. There is a certain way that you need to word things. There’s a lot of power in words and you’ve got to be really careful how you use them, to the media, to the players, to your staff. That’s the thing that I learned there. Competitive, I think that goes without saying. Extremely competitive. The higher you climb and as a coach it’s harder to breathe because you’re way up there. You’re climbing Mt. Everest and the higher you get up the less air there is to breathe, and you’re all fighting for the same oxygen tank. That’s really difficult, because there’s a lot of stresses and everybody’s good.”
Ryan is trying to catch his breath and get the Phoenix program back to its winning ways. Just four years ago, Green Bay was national runner-up in the postseason CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT).
But setting in during the start of the pandemic with players he didn’t recruit was difficult for Ryan and his staff. Then the NCAA changed its transfer rules, and it’s been the Wild West in college basketball. Eleven players from last year’s Green Bay squad either transferred or were released from the program.
It’s been a big adjustment for Ryan.
“The younger me always thought if I became a head coach I could slide right into a situation and sort of hit the ground running, but it takes time,” Ryan said. “Different philosophies from the last staff, they recruited a certain type of player that maybe didn’t quite fit us. Now they got better in a lot of areas, but because I didn’t recruit them, my staff and I didn’t have that bond with them, you knew that there were going to be kids that were going to enter the transfer portal. Your goal is to retain and try to build that bond with the young men in the program and just develop. When a bunch of them leave, alright, then you try to build it the way that you envisioned.
“Last year, we brought in seven new guys and most of them were great kids that we couldn’t build the relationship with them like we can now with the classes going forward, because we were able to leave campus, they weren’t able to come on campus. Everything was done via game film, Zoom calls, phone calls and word of mouth. Sometimes you strike it rich in that area and sometimes you don’t. All in all, last year we had a mixture of new guys as well as some holdovers from the previous staff. And so, you just never know nowadays who’s staying, who’s going.”
Heading into this season, the Green Bay men have only four returning players and 10 new faces.
Even with the big shift in his roster, Ryan said he is hoping to compete this season for the Horizon League title. He wants to get Green Bay’s program back up to where it once was, gaining trips to the NCAA Tournament.
If both the women’s and men’s basketball programs have success at the same time, that can only help out each other’s teams.
“If basketball’s doing well, that bleeds over into the other sports,” Ryan said. “There’s a lot of history here with both teams, women’s more recent, but there’s been a lot of great players to come through here. We use that in our recruiting pitch. They get to see (Jeff) Nordgaard and Tony Bennett’s jerseys hanging in the rafters. It’s definitely something you can sell to student-athletes and their parents — hey, the women’s team, coach Borseth and his staff have done a phenomenal job here. Why can’t we do that here?”
“I think the more all of us succeed as an athletic department helps immensely,” Borseth said. “Obviously, probably the biggest exposure goes to men’s sports — and no dig at women’s sports, I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’m all about women’s athletics — but all that goes their direction and their footprint probably carries bigger than our footprint does. That’s just my thought, initially. But going back to what Will said, the men had a great deal of success here in the past and I believe we fed off that success to help our program build. I believe that.
“But there’s a bigger piece to just winning basketball games. Actually keeping the people here, showing them that you can be successful in sports, you can be successful in life when you graduate. That’s the bigger picture that sometimes gets lost in sports. I’m old school. He (pointing to Will) comes from old school. I care. We care. I can say this, we care about our players. We care about each one of them individually having a level of success, having confidence in themselves. We care about them, to a fault. If my child goes to school some place, I want to know that they’re in good hands. That the person that I’ve signed my child over to is going to look out for my child’s well-being from first thing in the morning until they go to bed at night. And they’re going to do that their entire career when they’re there, because to me that’s far bigger than any game that they’ll ever win.”