GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – There is nothing like March Madness for fans, players, and coaches who love college basketball. Even though the Green Bay men’s basketball program has only been to the big dance once in the last 25 years, the Phoenix hope to rise again to that level, where they can watch the selection show with confidence that their name will be called.  

“I’ve had a lot of memorable March Madness moments throughout my life. Playing for my dad and winning some national championships at Platteville,” said Green Bay men’s basketball coach Will Ryan. “I love March Madness the most of all, so to have them experience that here at Green Bay, is obviously a big dream of ours and that’s a huge goal.” Green Bay Athletic Director Josh Moon feels the same way. “People are excited about what’s happening, especially as a mid-major school.  I think that’s what really makes it special, just the underdog versus the Power 5 schools, that’s what makes college basketball awesome.

There was a time when the Green Bay men’s basketball program owned the sports scene at the Brown County Arena, in fact, sold-out crowds helped lead to the building of the Resch Center, becoming the house that Dick Bennett built. “I think Tony (Bennett) said it once in an interview after a game, ‘Rocking and rolling in the Dick-Dome. And that’s what it was. Five or Six thousand fans.  Standing room only at Brown County Arena,” said alum Jeff Nordgaard. “It was the thing to do. Once the Packers season was over, it was the thing to do in Green Bay. And that’s what made part of it special. It was part of the draw in getting players here, and getting the town enthused about the team.”

Dick Bennett established the “Green Bay” way, and after having success at every level in his coaching career, he knows that it wasn’t always easy. And even he had to build from the ground up.

“If he (Ryan) will be patient, and he can get his own guys in here, and if they stay loyal to the program, they will grow up in it. They will become more competitive. These first years are close to impossible, and I told him to ‘stay the course,’ said Bennett. “It’s a very tough time. It’s much tougher than when I was here. The landscape of college basketball has changed, and it’s changing in even more ways that some of us struggle to see.”

Bennett was a coach who somehow ruled his players and program with an iron fist, while still having a heart of gold. And that is rare to find in today’s game for a variety of reasons. But it was that kind of balance, that led to a significant portion of his success.  

“He could get the most out of each player, he could get you to play to your strengths, hide your weaknesses, and then get all five guys to play as a team. And buy into the team concept,” said former player and alum Gary Grzesk.  “The way we defended kind of led to our offense. We made other teams work for good shots, and then on offense we were going to make the other team work as well. It went hand-in-hand. I know Coach Bennett is a defensive guru, and we were great defensively, but I don’t think he got enough credit for his offensive concepts.”

And while coaching styles and schemes have adjusted over the years, times have literally changed especially off the court, where coaches might not know who will be on the roster the next season. “With a coaching change, you always know there’s going to be turnover, and there’s going to be guys entering the transfer portal which is huge right now,” said Ryan. “Now it’s just a matter of getting your foundation set and you just continue to build day-by-day, and brick by brick, and things are trending upwards.”

Ryan knows that he will need to show some progress with the program, after going 5-25 this season, and even though there are only 6 players on his roster, he likes what he sees in this particular group. “The guys that stayed this year, they kind of helped lead the charge. We brought in a handful of new players and some young, some old, and the guys that did return, did a good job of helping lead those younger guys and showing them how we kind of do things, so we do still have a couple guys left from that were recruited by the previous staff, and now we are in the process of getting our guys, our recruits in and we did a good job and I felt like we had home runs with a few guys in this recruiting class, that were freshman this year.” Moon added, “That’s what makes it great for GB basketball, and that’s what we’re excited about. Building this program to the point where it’s a mid-major power. That’s our goal. That’s what we want to do, that’s what Coach Ryan believes in, and that’s why I’m here.”

Both Ryan and Moon are optimistic about the future of the program, despite finishing in the bottom third of the Horizon League for the second straight season. And they clearly understand that they will have to do things differently to succeed. 

“The first thing is knowing who we are, and who we aren’t, and how do we get this region to believe again,” said Moon. “There is some great tradition here in basketball. Getting people to believe again, opening up doors in relationships, and making Phoenix basketball to be the hottest ticket in town.  I talked about the mid and early 90s when going to the arena was just the best thing. I remember growing up and my dad took me. We’ve got to get back to that, and we’ve got to figure it out. It’s not that era anymore. Things have changed. There’s so much more going on. Youth sports, traveling, and all the different things that are in this region.  We also have to have a winning product obviously, but we also need people to believe in what we’ve been saying about Northeast Wisconsin’s only Division I team. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Green Bay or Appleton or Oshkosh, anywhere in Northeast Wisconsin, this should be your mid-major institution, that you just you love and you want to see you succeed at the highest level.”

The Green Bay program is also looking for success off the court and there’s no question that if you win, fans will follow. During Bennett’s time in Green Bay, the Phoenix went from averaging less than 1,500 fans in 1986 per game, to consistently over 5,200 for the greater portion of his tenure. That number declined during the Mike Heideman era, rebounded some when Tod Kowalczyk took over, but ultimately fell under 2,000 by the time Linc Darner was fired. The last two years have had unpredictable circumstances due to cancellations and postponements along with stadiums that didn’t have fans in 2021. So where do the staff and program go from here to create a buzz around the program?

“It starts with what Coach Ryan is doing, building a roster, and the culture. I know the women’s program has had a blueprint, that’s what makes GB basketball special,” said Moon. “The Phoenix women have had sustained success over so many years. So can we bring those fan bases together and believe in Phoenix basketball as one? I think that’s the first thing. And then getting people to just believe in their hometown institution and their hometown basketball program, we’re going to target more of the best talent from the region. People want to see Donovan Short from Denmark, and some of those folks that have excelled at the highest levels in the state of Wisconsin. They should be coming here. We’ve got to make this the best place for them to go and we’ve got to make that experience electric.” 

It’s pretty easy to see that Ryan was dealt a tough hand when Darner was fired at the end of May in 2020 when the recruiting process was basically over, but he thinks there are plenty of positives to build on from last season. 

“It’s trending that way. Basically taking over and getting a job when I did, and inheriting a group of kids that we did not recruit, you’re just trying to expedite the process with them,” said Ryan. “Get to know them as quickly as you can, because you don’t want to have to recruit a whole new roster at the end of the summer.” Moon added, “Understanding what’s going on the last couple years in the world has been life-changing for athletics and specifically with COVID-19. It’s not 1995 anymore, or 1990, things have changed with the portal and some of those things that have happened so we have to adapt. We have to be more creative than our competition.”

The Phoenix has a total of five NCAA appearances with four of those coming during a six-year stretch in the mid-1990s, and an appearance in 2016. And the path to get to the big dance might be easier than in the past. 

“Obviously there’s an opportunity in the Horizon League to get yourself back to the NCAA tournament. It’s not we don’t have the elite teams like Butler of years past, or even when Valpo was strong,” said Nordgaard. “So GB has an opportunity. I think it starts with a roster of Division I players. When recruiting you have to get lucky with the players, but there’s more to it than that.”