Will Paul Chryst Bring Stability Back to Wisconsin Football?

Badgers turn to alum after two surprising departures

Two of the biggest blindside hits fifth-year quarterback Joel Stave has absorbed during his career at Wisconsin occurred off the field.

 

The first came in December 2012 when news broke that coach Bret Bielema was leaving the Badgers for Arkansas. Two years and six days later, Bielema’s replacement, Gary Andersen, sent shock waves through Madison and beyond by bolting for Oregon State.

 

For a 23-season stretch starting in 1990, Wisconsin had two coaches: Barry Alvarez for 16 seasons, followed by Bielema, Alvarez’s hand-picked successor after he slid into the athletic director’s seat. The program was the picture of stability.

 

Now, Stave and some other veterans on the roster are set to work under their third coach in four seasons. That figure doesn’t include Alvarez twice filling in as interim coach in bowl games. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind here,” Stave says.

 

The first person Alvarez thought of after Andersen delivered his bombshell was Paul Chryst. A week later, Chryst was officially hired by his alma mater. Alvarez can sleep easy at night knowing Chryst isn’t going to surprise him with a phone call that he’s leaving for greener pastures: Chryst grew up in Madison, played for the Badgers in the 1980s and had two stints as an assistant coach at Wisconsin, including a successful run as the program’s offensive coordinator from 2005-11.

 

“With Coach Chryst coming back, you can tell he wants to be here,” senior linebacker Joe Schobert says. “This is his dream job. I think he’ll be here for a long time. He certainly seems like he wants to be here.”

Related: Buy the 2015 Big Ten Football Preview

 

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That Bielema and Andersen didn’t share that same feeling has been difficult to process for Alvarez and the Wisconsin fanbase. Alvarez had several chances to leave after turning the Badgers from a doormat in the Big Ten to a program that won three conference and Rose Bowl titles in a span of seven seasons, but he turned down each opportunity and continued to build his legacy in Madison. He hired Bielema with the idea he’d be in it for the long haul, and he felt the same way about Andersen.

 

“When I’ve hired people I’ve always thought this is a destination job, but people change,” Alvarez says. “People don’t always see things the same way or have different visions, and that’s OK. That’s what makes the world go ’round.”

 

Bielema’s departure was particularly painful to Alvarez because the two were close. Alvarez didn’t even know Bielema was flirting with Arkansas until the deal was done. While Bielema’s move was stunning, it was understandable on some levels.

 

Setting up base in a region that ruled college football for the better part of a decade — at least until Urban Meyer resurfaced at Ohio State — gave Bielema access to a fertile recruiting area and more money for himself and his assistants. Yes, it’d be difficult to navigate through the powerful SEC West Division, but Bielema figured he had a better chance of winning a national title with the Razorbacks than the Badgers.

 

Related: Big Ten 2015 Predictions

 

Andersen, on the other hand, left people scratching their heads with his decision to leave Wisconsin for Oregon State, which has reached double-digit wins only twice in program history, hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl in five decades and, oh yeah, has to compete with a national powerhouse located 50 miles down the road in Eugene.

 

So why did Andersen choose to leave Wisconsin on the heels of leading the Badgers to a Big Ten West Division title with an impressive recruiting class on the way? A big reason was his frustration with Wisconsin’s admission policies, which are more rigid than some other Big Ten programs.

 

“It’s been well (documented) there were some kids I couldn’t get in school,” Andersen told CBSSports.com. “That was highly frustrating to me. I lost some guys, and I told them I wasn’t going to lose them. I think they did what they were supposed to do (academically), and they still couldn’t get in. That was really hard to deal with.”

 

At his previous stop, Utah State, a significant chunk of Andersen’s roster was filled with junior college transfers. Wisconsin had had only a handful of junior college players under Alvarez and Bielema. There were also high school prospects whom Andersen had to turn away due to academics. Missing out on one in particular — highly touted defensive tackle Craig Evans, from the Madison suburb of Sun Prairie — “really bothered” Andersen, Alvarez told the Wisconsin State Journal. Not only did Evans, who had orally committed to the Badgers, change his mind when it became apparent he wouldn’t be admitted to Wisconsin, but he also ended up at Big Ten rival Michigan State instead.

Related: Wisconsin 2015 Preview and Prediction

“That’s not Wisconsin’s fault,” Andersen, speaking of his old school’s admission policies in general, told CBSSports.com. “That’s Wisconsin’s deal. ... I want to surround myself with those kids I can get in school.”

Chryst, for his part, embraces the academic aspect to Wisconsin. Part of that comfort level had to do with the fact that he lived it, both as a student-athlete and as an assistant. Chryst views Wisconsin’s academic profile as a strength, not an obstruction.

 

“I think I believe it because I’ve been around it,” Chryst says. “Now, I think I’m still finding out, how has it changed? Because nothing really ever stays the same. But I believe in the concept of it. It will reduce your pool of recruits. But all that matters in recruiting is that those guys are the right fit for this place and they can have success. And I think those types of guys that find Wisconsin appealing because of the football and the academics and the town and all the things that go with it, those that truly know it and embrace it, that’s a good starting point.”

 

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A visitor to Chryst’s office in mid-April, four months after he took the Wisconsin job, might have thought he was on his way out the door. The shelves were practically empty, and so were the walls for the most part, giving the room a sparse feeling.

There was also the matter of Chryst spending the spring sleeping in an extra room at his mother Patty’s home. “You picture this 50-year-old guy down in the basement,” Chryst says.

 

But don’t be fooled. Chryst’s wife Robin stayed behind in Pittsburgh until the couple’s son Danny finished his senior year in high school. She planned to relocate to Madison in June, when the high school sweethearts could begin the process of moving into their new home.

 

As for the lack of decorations in his office, part of that is due to Chryst’s no-frills personality, and part of it is simply a matter of priorities. Making his base camp more aesthetically pleasing falls somewhere near the bottom of a long to-do list during the early stages of taking over a program that has been to a bowl game in 20 of the past 22 seasons, with nine double-digit win totals and six trips to the Rose Bowl during that stretch.

 

As coaching transitions go, this one was certainly made easier by the fact that Chryst knows the lay of the land on campus, has a good working relationship with the high school coaches in the state and doesn’t need introductions to boosters and most of the school’s administration. People are familiar with Chryst. “Except for the ones that matter the most,” he says, “and that’s the players. So we’re still trying to figure that out. I think that’s one of the things we had to accomplish in the spring — us knowing them, and equally them getting to know us.”

 

One advantage for Chryst: Veterans such as Stave who were around in 2011, Chryst’s final season as offensive coordinator, could provide a good scouting report on their new coach to the younger players on the roster. It’s easy for players’ trust to be damaged when they’ve been burned by coaches leaving for other programs, but Alvarez quickly found someone who didn’t view the Wisconsin job as a stepping stone.

 

“He loves this place,” senior fullback Derek Watt says of Chryst, who went 19–19 in three seasons at Pittsburgh. “It’s home for him. I think he’s focused on the here and the now and is just going to do everything he can for this program. I don’t think we have to worry too much about where his mindset is at.”

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