Jan 10, 2019
THE Badger Sportsman
UW men’s hoops Coach Greg Gard shares his lifelong enjoyment of Wisconsin’s outdoors
By Sean Fitzgerald
If the prospect of Game Warden Greg Gard writing you a citation while you’re out enjoying Wisconsin’s woodlands gets your Fruit of the Loom in a bundle, don’t worry about it actually happening. Gard has no plans to quit his day job.
The fourth-year University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach and outdoor enthusiast acknowledges he was very close to pursuing a wildlife management degree at UW Stevens Point right out of high school, but an aversion to all of the science requirements eventually deterred his interest. Thank goodness he didn’t head down that path.
Instead, Gard went on to pursue a bachelors of physical and health education at UW Platteville, and after 23 years of tutelage as an assistant under legendary UW Platteville and Badger basketball Coach Bo Ryan, Coach Gard took the helm in December 2015. He’d eventually earn the 2016 Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year honors while guiding the Badgers to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament in each of his first two seasons.
Badger Sportsman magazine sat down with the Wisconsin native the morning after his team’s come-from-behind win over North Carolina State during the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in late November to talk about hunting, fishing and basketball in the Dairy State.
The Iowa County native from the small village of Cobb grew up hunting pheasant, deer and squirrel with his father, Glen, who worked a 42-year career as an agricultural loan officer with Badgerland Financial. With guidance from his father on how to properly handle a gun and safely pursue game in the field, the family hunted farmland in rural Iowa County owned by the farm families who were his father’s customers.
“My love for hunting and fishing all starts with my dad. I was tagging along with him from the first time he would let me – even way before I could hunt,” Gard explained.
The lessons from his father extended to sportsman etiquette, stewardship and courtesy as well. Gard recalls his father taking Christmas gifts to the farm families to express his gratitude for the opportunity to hunt their family land.
“He was so gracious with the landowners, taking them Christmas gifts, boxes of cheese and whatever,” Gard said. “He was so appreciative of those people letting us hunt on their land and understood what that meant, and I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned when hunting on private land. That you really show your gratitude and appreciation to the landowner in whatever form or fashion that may be.”
It was turkey hunting, however, that evolved into a leading passion for Gard after he participated in the state Department of Natural Resources’ first managed turkey hunt in 1983. His father’s friend and neighbor taught a young 8thgrade Greg how to call for turkey, and he was hooked.
At the urging of his parents to improve his public speaking abilities, Gard signed up for his school’s forensics team and qualified for the state competition with his already-honed turkey calling abilities. He later would win the youth division of the turkey calling competition at Wisconsin Deer & Turkey Expo in Madison.
Today, turkey hunting dominates most of Gard’s time in the woods, particularly because of the convenient timing of the spring season. As a career college coach with basketball seasons running from early October into late March every year, Gard just doesn’t get the time to enjoy many of Wisconsin’s fall and winter hunts. But the turkey season accommodates his schedule well.
“Especially in the spring (when the basketball season ends),” Gard said. “My day job gets in the way a bit in the fall.”
Gard lives on 65 acres in rural Dane County where he maintains his own food plot and neighbors an adjacent operating farm. His land did afford him a couple of brief opportunities to chase whitetail both the opening Sunday and final Sunday of this past gun deer hunting season. The two oldest of his three children – a girl, age 17, and a son who’s 15 – like to hunt and each joined their father one at a time during those outings. The latter with his son came just a day after returning from the Badgers’ runner-up finish at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in Bahamas.
Though they didn’t harvest a deer on either outing, Gard acknowledged the time together with his kids is irreplaceable and priceless.
“It’s a great time getting away from all the technology,” he said, referencing how social media and Smartphones have impacted the lifestyle of his players and his children. “To be able to break away from all of that and actually have a conversation. That’s one thing that today’s youth lack – the ability to communicate personally. I always tell our players, ‘I don’t coach you over text message. I don’t text you to say ‘block out’ or ‘run up the court faster.’”
Gard recognizes he’s fortunate to have his job with UW athletics, but he’s also realistic that being a Big Ten head basketball coach places demands on his schedule that mitigates the quantity of time he can spend with his children. Rather, “I have to focus on quality of time together, because I won’t get the quantity. I’ll never catch that rabbit, in terms of having the quantity that you’d like to have.”
That focus on quality time together is where taking his kids hunting – or spending a day with the family on the lake at their Oneida County vacation home – has become a key component of Gard’s appreciation for the outdoors in Wisconsin.
Gard learned to fish on nearby Blackhawk Lake in Iowa County. During his summer after graduating high school, Gard worked at Blackhawk Lake County Park as an attendant in the park office and eventually became a park ranger at the popular camping destination.
“I got tagging along with the rangers at night doing ride-alongs,” Gard said. “There was a little excitement. Not everybody behaves at their campsite.”
Currently, Gard’s favorite species to fish is largemouth bass, which he can enjoy out on his boat with family at his vacation home in Oneida County when his schedule is a bit more open during the summer.
“It’s mostly panfish there,” Gard said. “I have a guide up there who is the basketball coach at Three Lakes High School and he’s taken our kids out a couple of times to some other lakes toward Three Lakes and we’ve done some northern fishing just to fire up the kids a little bit.”
But Gard acknowledged he historically hunts more than he fishes, and isn’t always successful. It’s been a couple years since his family harvested a deer.
“I probably hunt more than I produce,” Gard joked. “Isn’t there a T-shirt or something like that? Vegetarian equals bad hunter?”
Reflections on his own father
Gard’s father, Glen, passed away after a courageous battle with brain cancer just 45 days before he was appointed interim head coach at Wisconsin in the fall of 2015. The oldest of three boys, he was extremely close with his dad through all of the sports and outdoor activities his father taught him and his brothers while growing up.
“To look back now, it’s the time spent. You can’t put a price tag on the time that I’ve had with him that I maybe didn’t value at that point in time,” Gard said. “But now, I’d love to have half of it back, even a quarter of it back.”
Gard is visibly emotional talking about the bond he had with his father. He chokes up on a few occasions during our interview. But his father clearly influenced how Gard raises his own children, including the experiences of father-child time together outdoors.
“You can’t buy everything. There’s a lot of things in life that you can’t put a price tag on,” Gard said. “The time you get, you can never get enough. That’s why I say I want to make it as quality as possible, knowing that I’ll never hit the quantitative value I want.”
Gard’s father, Glen, took his oldest daughter deer hunting twice during her younger teen years, memories she’ll certainly cherish throughout life.
“My daughter has gotten two, both with my dad,” he said. “She’s only gotten deer with him. She’s never gotten one with me.”
Business on the court
A quick perusal of Gard’s office inside Madison’s Kohl Center pegs him as a studious team leader. Sitting on one of the two bench chairs from the 2015 NCAA Final Four along the west-viewing window of his office, one notices dozens of books scattered on a nearby table and bookshelf written by coaching legends such as Rick Pitino, Dick Bennett and Pat Riley, to name just a few.
But the collection also includes intuitive books used by CEOs of Fortune 500 companies like those from Jon Gordon, a best-selling author on leadership, culture and teamwork. Gard had the team read Gordon’s “The Power of Positive Leadership” as part of their off-the-court training this past fall.
“Athletics are such a great teacher of life because you get put into situations as a microcosm of things you’re going to face,” Gard said. “Now it’s going to be a different world – but you’re going to have to deal with adversity, you’re going to have to work with a team, you have to be good at time management, you have to have a great work ethic, you have to perform under pressure.
“You’re going to have to handle wins and losses – you’re not going to make every sale. You may get demoted, or you may have to start at the bottom – like our freshmen. It’s a microcosm of what you’re going to go through in life.”
His players have become students of the game as well, evidenced by the intellectual game they’ve played on the court this year.
Players wrapped up their first semester (at Badger Sportsman press time for this issue – note 12.13 game w/ Sav St) with an 8-2 record and ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press poll.
As a lifelong coach in the state – including assistant tenures at UW Platteville, UW Milwaukee and UW Madison – Gard is grateful for unfettered fan support.
“You look at the fabric of the DNA of the upper Midwest people. They appreciate hard work. They appreciate an honest effort. They appreciate family,” Gard said. “They want to see in a product what they are like. So for me, being a resident of the state and having spent my whole life here, I think they view me and our program as one of them. They know our players are going to play hard. We may not make every shot and we may not win every game. But they know we’re going to give a great effort. Our team hopefully emulates the fabric of what people in Wisconsin live like.”
Statewide fight against cancer
Two years ago, Gard and his wife, Michelle, launched Garding Against Cancer, an initiative to raise funds and awareness for cancer research and care within the state. Inspired by his own father’s battle with cancer, Garding Against Cancer has raised more than $2 million to support cancer patients and research here in Wisconsin.
“When you have a person really close to you go though it and you watch it from Day One until the very last, it takes on a whole different meaning,” Gard explained. “To be in a position as the head coach of Wisconsin, to hav a voice and a platform and the resources to be able to raise the awareness of this issue, is something my wife, Michelle, and I needed to do.”
Gard realizes the recognition he earned as an assistant coach following the Badgers two consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances in 2014 and 2015 helped get the phone answered when he called some of the most reputed cancer treatment centers in the country on behalf of his father.
“By the time I connected the dots, they knew exactly who I was because they had watched us play. So I had access to people. But what happens to people from Tomah, Spooner, Egg Harbor, Hazel Green or Eagle River when they face something? Where can they turn?”
Garding Against Cancer aims to be a beacon for cancer awareness in Wisconsin and serve as a hub for patients and families to share stories. The organization hosts various grassroots fundraising events across Wisconsin each year, and funds research initiatives specifically based out of UW Carbone Cancer Center in Madison.
Find more information on Garding Against Cancer by going online to www.gardingagainstcancer.org.