Former Knicks coach Stu Jackson won’t be at The Garden tonight when Wisconsin attempts to take yet another step closer to reaching a third Final Four in the last four years.
Yes, On Wisconsin.
On to securing its place among the elite programs in college basketball.
The Badgers (27-9), the No. 8 seed in the East Region, face Florida (26-8) the No. 4 seed in a tipoff 30 minutes after No. 7 South Carolina (24-10) meets No. 3 Baylor (27-7) in a 7:29 tipoff in The World’s Most Famous Arena.
But it wasn’t always this way at Wisconsin. In fact, Badgers basketball was less popular than ice fishing when Jackson headed to Madison in 1992.
“I took the job against the better judgment of a lot of friends and colleagues in the business,’’ Jackson told MSGNetworks.com. “One colleague said, ‘You do know that their home arena is a barn?’’’
OK, it wasn’t a barn. It was the Wisconsin Field House.
In 1947, Wisconsin played in the NCAA Tournament for the last time until a former Knicks coach arrived with a lot of hubris and no ice fishing pole.
That’s right: From 1947 until 1994, Wisconsin and the NCAA Tournament were as distant as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
But in 1992, despite the better judgment of colleagues and perhaps his wife, Dr. Susan Taylor, a brilliant psychiatrist who may or may not have suggested her husband undergo an evaluation, Jackson headed for the Heartland.
Wisconsin accommodated Taylor with a spot in its prestigious medical school. It ‘accommodated’ Jackson with a salary of $275,000.
Current coach Greg Gard currently earns $1.75 million, a glaring example of how much more successful Wisco basketball is today, no less how big college athletics have become.
Jackson took a team that went 13-18 in 1991-92 to 14-14 in his first season. The Badgers went 18-11 in 1993-94 and Wisconsin went to the NCAA Tournament, beating Cincinnati before losing to Missouri.
“Stu Jackson flipped our program,’’ said Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez, who at the same time was flipping the football program as its coach, winning the 1994 Rose Bowl.
“He understood what was required to build a successful program. He arrived with so much energy and knowledge from working for the NBA, coaching the Knicks. I often think of his contribution when I hear people discuss the success of a basketball program now.’’
Jackson coached the Knicks to a 45-37 record in 1989-90 and was 7-8 the following year when he was let go by GM Al Bianchi, who was in the final year of his contract and felt pressure to make a deep NBA playoff run.
Jackson, now the senior associate commissioner for the Big East, which is alive and well in the NCAA Tournament (see: Xavier upsetting Arizona, Butler playing North Carolina, and Villanova winning the 2016 national title), said his time with the Knicks prepared him for the herculean task of flipping Wisconsin.
Jackson had worked as an associate coach and head recruiting coordinator under Rick Pitino at Providence College from 1985-87. When Pitino took over the Knicks, Jackson came as an assistant coach. The Knicks rapidly rose to prominence.
Pitino instituted an electrifying brand of basketball that came to be known as the Bomb Squad. With Patrick Ewing in the middle and a bevy of shooters on the perimeter – Mark Jackson, Johnny Newman, Trent Tucker, Rod Strickland and Gerald Wilkins – the Knicks were the hottest show on Broadway.
Jackson was one of the NBA’s sharpest understudies.
“I was fortunate to learn the craft of coaching and building a program, and I don’t use the word ‘craft’ lightly, from working with Rick Pitino,’’ Jackson said. “It’s not just the X’s and O’s and basketball.
“Rick taught me how to lead an organization. You have to have everyone involved in the process. The trainers, the strength coaches, the nutritionists, the scouts, the locker room staff, everyone has to be passionately involved. The physical and emotional investment it takes by everyone at every turn has to be there.
“When I got to Wisconsin I knew I would need all of that knowledge. I knew we were going to have to deliver a real hard jolt. There was something to do for the fans. It did not have the passion and scrutiny it does now.’’
Now Wisconsin is one of the poster childs of NCAA athletics. The Badgers football team goes to a bowl game every season, including six Rose Bowls since 1994.
The basketball program tonight is looking for its 14th NCAA Tournament win in the last four years, more than any other program during that span. Jackson is too humble to pound his chest and issue a release stating he helped lay the foundation. But that’s exactly what the former Knicks coach did.
“Every coach, player and member of the support staff, especially those people behind the scenes that don’t get the recognition they deeply deserve, everyone that we asked to believe in something they had never seen, that’s what I take pride in,’’ Jackson said.
“Those people should take great pride in knowing we helped ignite what is happening today.’’