At the end of an emotional news conference Saturday, March 7 at Indiana, the three men sitting to the left of University of Wisconsin men's basketball coach Greg Gard put in some plugs for their boss.
"That's the coach of the year right there," Joe Krabbenhoft said.
"Yessir," Dean Oliver responded.
"He's got my vote," Alando Tucker said. "Twice, if I can."
Call those three UW assistant coaches biased, if you will, but they weren't on an island with those opinions. On Monday, March 9, Gard was named Big Ten Coach of the Year by both his peers and media members from around the conference.
The award came two days after the Badgers clinched a share of their first Big Ten title in five years with a 60-56 victory over the Hoosiers. Michigan State and Maryland joined UW atop the Big Ten standings a day later, but the Badgers (21-10) would have been the No. 1 seed at the conference tournament.
"The depth and the parity have never been like this," said Gard, who was an assistant at UW for 14 full seasons before taking over the program when Bo Ryan retired midway through the 2015-16 campaign. "So to be able to say you've been one of the champions of this league, arguably the deepest and the most competitive it's ever been, is a great compliment to our team and to our players and how they've rallied together and my coaching staff and everybody that's had their fingerprints on this. There have been a lot of people who have helped and been a part of this success."
While Ryan was named Big Ten Coach of the Year four times during his legendary career, this is the first time Gard has been honored.
Gard's best coaching job prior to this season arguably came in his rookie campaign, when he took over a team that was 7-5 under Ryan and had lost at home to Western Illinois and UW-Milwaukee. The Badgers were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play early in Gard's tenure, but they rallied to win 11 of their next 12 games to continue the program's NCAA tournament streak and earn Gard the full-time job.
As remarkable as that run was, what Gard and Co. have done this season has been even more impressive.
They've dealt with heartbreak since late May, when assistant coach Howard Moore and his family were involved in a tragic car accident. Moore's wife Jennifer and 9-year-old daughter Jaidyn died as a result of the crash, while Howard Moore sustained serious burns and later had a heart attack. He's on medical leave from his job and was replaced on an interim basis by Tucker in the late summer.
UW started the season 5-5 while playing without junior forward Micah Potter, who had transferred from Ohio State last December. Potter's battles with the NCAA — he had a series of appeals denied — played out publicly as the Badgers struggled to form an identity in November and December with an undermanned frontcourt.
Just when it seemed UW might build some momentum after Potter joined the lineup, it faced a series of challenges in late January and early February. Kobe King, the Badgers' second-leading scorer at the time, left the program following a 70-51 loss at Purdue on Jan. 24; junior guard Brad Davison was suspended for a game by the Big Ten and faced loads of criticism nationally; and strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland was forced to resign Feb. 6 for using a racial epithet in front of players a month earlier.
The Badgers were 13-10 overall and 6-6 in Big Ten play following a 70-52 loss at Minnesota on Feb. 5 — the day before Helland lost his job — but haven't lost since that point. Gard's assistants credited him for righting the ship while UW was going through choppy waters.
"I think he had great preparation for the coaching aspect of it from our former coach and his former boss," Krabbenhoft said. "But what life threw at us in May, nothing can prepare you for that. ...
"He never got caught up in all the hoopla that this world gives you at times and this sport does. He stays true to who he is, from Cobb, Wisconsin, and when we went through coach Moore's accident, he handled it just the way he should. He cared about the people and made it about the players."
Both Krabbenhoft and Tucker played at UW while Gard was an assistant under Ryan. Tucker said it's been impressive to have a front-row seat to the job Gard has done leading the program through trying times.
"Put basketball Xs and Os aside," Tucker said. "To be able to stay strong when everything is against you and be able to still lead those guys in that locker room and have trust in us, that takes a lot. He's been there for me from day one even as a player."
"You talk about this team's resiliency, and it starts right here," said Oliver, nodding at Gard. "Whenever we've gone through anything, he's stayed the course. He's never got distracted from what we're trying to do, always kept everybody calm, always kept us on the same path. He deserves the way we're playing right now."
When asked on the Big Ten Network's awards show how the Badgers didn't collapse after King's shocking departure, Gard credited the unselfishness shown by his remaining players.
"I think they came together," Gard said, "and they understood that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts."
Notably, the Badgers didn't place any players on the All-Big Ten first and second teams. According to UW, that's the first time that's happened to a Big Ten regular-season champion since the conference began choosing these honors in 1948.
UW junior forward Nate Reuvers was named to the All-Big Ten third team by both the coaches and the media. Junior point guard D'Mitrik Trice was named to the coaches' third team and earned honorable mention from the media.
Gard was happy to share his award with his players and staff.
"This is a team award," he said. "You're not in this position if you don't have a really good team."
Senior walk-on Michael Ballard was the UW's recipient of a Big Ten Sportsmanship award.
Meanwhile, junior center Luka Garza made history by becoming the first Iowa player to be named Big Ten Player of the Year since the award debuted in 1985. Garza was joined on the coaches' first team by Michigan State senior point guard Cassius Winston, Maryland senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., Maryland sophomore forward Jalen Smith and Penn State senior forward Lamar Stevens. The only difference on the media's first team was Illinois sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu in place of Cowan.
Michigan State senior forward Xavier Tillman earned the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award, while Illinois center Kofi Cockburn was named the Freshman of the Year.
Potter had a strong case for Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, but that award went to Maryland's Aaron Wiggins instead.
While Gard deflected praise for most of his television interview, he did acknowledge he was honored to receive the award because he grew up watching the Big Ten and knows how difficult it is to win in the conference.