Commentary

Ryan takes Badgers' conditioning to higher level

Updated: September 30, 2008, 4:17 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

MADISON, Wis. -- Bo Ryan can never work in Nebraska. The current Wisconsin coach also can't call the courts in Kansas home. Nix the Dakotas, too.

Just count out all the plain states.

No hills, no Bo. That simple.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Landry
Andy Manis/ESPN.comFrom left, Ryan Evans, Marcus Landry, Kevin Gullikson and Jon Leuer take a trip up the hill at Elver Park as part of their preseason training on Sept. 22.
More than 20 years ago, Ryan was an assistant at Wisconsin, watching his players run the steps at Camp Randall Stadium for conditioning. By the end of the season, virtually all of the Badgers complained of gimpy knees and sore backs.

Ryan got the ear of a track coach who told him that many top international track and field teams -- particularly those in Cuba and Russia -- had changed their training programs.

"They were running across hills or just running hills," Ryan said. "It got me to thinking."

And so a sadistic plan was hatched.

"Running the hill" is now a Ryan tradition, a preseason conditioning drill in which players gradually increase their trips to the summit, ending at 20 per session by the time official practices begin.

In each of his head-coaching stops -- from Platteville to Milwaukee to Madison -- Ryan has made finding a perfect hill one of his first pieces of business. He sends an assistant out in search of a spot in town that has just the right elevation to make a player adequately miserable.

For the past seven years, Elver Park has been the torture site of choice for the Badgers. The hill more closely resembles a bunny ski slope, arcing upwards for about 120 yards (Ryan had the engineering students at Platteville plot the angle of the hill there -- 11 degrees -- but hasn't enticed any UW students yet).

But on this bunny slope, there are no tow ropes or chair lifts. Just sneakers, tired legs and ruts worn into the hill over time.

"It's awful," senior Joe Krabbenhoft said. "Coach brought a recruit out recently. I was like, 'What are you doing? You don't want him to know we do this. He'll never come here.'"

On this particular Monday in September, the Badgers were in for 16 trips up the hill. The thermometer pushed to an uncharacteristically toasty 80 degrees as the players poured out of the white vans that carted them to the park from campus.

All around them, happy people ran leisurely or sat at picnic tables. A few students showed up to play the disc golf course that zigzags the hill.

Bo Ryan
Andy Manis for ESPN.comWisconsin coach Bo Ryan times his players as they take on the hill. His team doesn't return to campus until every player has completed his trips.
The players assembled, looking somewhere on the far side of happy.

"It's tougher mentally than it is physically," Krabbenhoft said. "And it's so tough physically, so that tells you something."

To guarantee safety, Ryan has his athletic trainer, Henry Perez-Guerra, check the heat index. Based on that, Perez-Guerra will determine how much of a breather the players get between trips.

Each player also wears a heart monitor, and his heart rate is checked on every trip by another member of the training staff positioned midway up the hill with a computer.

Ryan is the winner of the ultimate game of king of the hill, standing in the breeze in a wind shirt and pants with a stopwatch as his players trudge toward him. The Badgers run in groups by position, and Ryan announces each group's split as they ascend the hill.

"I think it gets harder as you get older,'' senior Marcus Landry said. "When you're a freshman, it's all adrenaline. You're trying to prove a point to Coach. When you're established, it's not that you don't need to prove a point, but there's not that pressure.''

The guards breeze up the hill, barely panting. The forwards lumber steadily and the big men, well, the big men make it.

No one gets back into the vans until the last person has completed his trips.

"This is what it's about as much as anything -- team building," Ryan said. "There are times, especially early, when guys are really struggling and the other guys will run with them to make sure they finish."

As Ryan spoke, 6-foot-11 sophomore J.P. Gavinski slowly made his way to the top.

"How you doing, J.P.?" Ryan asked.

"Just great, Coach," Gavinski replied as he bent over, hands on knees.

And then he turned and trudged back to the bottom.

He had four more trips to go.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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