Why Wisconsin has more than a snowball's chance in hell of winning it all under Paul Chryst

MADISON, Wis. — Kids these days. Paul Chryst doesn’t understand them.

He has been the head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers for four winters now, and not once has his car been hit with a snowball on the drive into work at Camp Randall Stadium. He finds this appalling.

“Like, c’mon,” Chryst lamented in his office earlier this month, feet on his desk, a wad of tobacco stretching his lower lip. “They’re not even trying. I feel like I need to show them how to make a good snowball. ‘C’mon, kids, here’s what you do …’ ”

Chryst made (and threw) plenty of snowballs as a kid growing up just a few blocks from the stadium. Slick streets and slow-moving vehicles presented a target-rich environment for a rambunctious neighborhood crew of boys, which included three Chrysts — Paul and older brothers Rick and George Jr. (known as Geep).

“Our next-door neighbor had this big porch,” Rick Chryst recalled. “It was a nice sniper vantage point.”

Sometimes the boys ventured off the porch to go “skeeching,” as they called it. They would follow cars on foot, then grab onto the back bumper and take a ride, sliding along on the snowy roads.

In better weather, the kids would march down to the big stadium and sneak in to play on the field. Though, in reality, there wasn’t much sneaking to be done in those days. Access was easy, especially when your dad was an assistant coach and you knew the place like your own backyard.

Paul Chryst and the Badgers won the Orange Bowl last season. What’s in store in 2018? (Getty)
Paul Chryst and the Badgers won the Orange Bowl last season. What’s in store in 2018? (Getty)

Here is another area where Paul Chryst sees a generational decline. He doesn’t come to work and find neighborhood kids who have infiltrated the stadium to play football on the Camp Randall turf.

“I’d love it,” he said. “It doesn’t happen enough. We’ve got a bunch of people missing opportunities.”

And there is the key word in the English language for Chryst: opportunity. He uses it so often in news conferences that the family gives him a hard time about it. “You could have a good drinking game with how many times he says ‘opportunity,’ ” Rick suggested.

In Paul Chryst’s optimistic world, life’s mundanities and difficulties are just camouflaged opportunities.

He says, with conviction, that he’s loved every coaching job he’s had — Division III, Canadian Football League, NFL, a total 23 years as an assistant coach before becoming the man in charge in his late 40s. He would have been perfectly fine going through his entire professional life without being a head coach, the way Geep has (now coaching tight ends for the Denver Broncos).

“Every place I’ve ever been,” Chryst said, “I really did feel like, ‘This is awesome.’ ”

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He shakes his head when he hears coaches dwell upon how hard they work and the pressures of the job.

“We talk about that too much,” Chryst said. “What’s the worst thing that happens to you? You get booed. You want pressure? Work two jobs to put food on the table.”

That outlook makes optimistic, happy-where-he-stands Paul Chryst and Wisconsin a perfect marriage. His two predecessors, Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen, made lateral-at-best moves — rushing off to jobs where they would be fired or forced out. For Chryst, the Madison native with roots that run forever, this is a destination job.

Winter weather may drive some recruits away from a place like Wisconsin — but to the head football coach, it’s a wonderful chance to hone your snowball-throwing skills. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.

It takes a level of self-assuredness — or at least a lack of insecurity — to come to work every day at a place where the boss has a statue outside the office. Especially when that boss has a balcony overlooking the Camp Randall field, enabling him to easily oversee your work product whenever he wishes.

On this particular August day, the boss has hobbled out of his office to sit at the top of the lower-level bleachers, right at the 50-yard line. Barry Alvarez has recently undergone knee-replacement surgery, so getting around is arduous. But his eyes work just fine, and they scan the field behind sunglasses while he talks.

Nobody did more to build Wisconsin football than Alvarez. He’s the winningest coach in school history by far, pulling the program out of a long malaise and taking it to the Rose Bowl three times before booting himself upstairs to athletic director. For his work here, Alvarez was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.

Now, at age 71, he’s watching one of his former assistants carry the torch. Actually, that’s an understatement. Paul Chryst isn’t just carrying the torch, he’s got it burning more brightly than ever.

“Makes me very proud,” Alvarez said.

The team working on the turf below him this particular day could be the best in Chryst’s tenure. Which means it could be among the best in school history.

Chryst’s first three Wisconsin teams have gone 10-3, 11-3 and 13-1. If last year’s team had won the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State, it almost certainly would have made the College Football Playoff. That would have ignited a firestorm after a lightweight regular-season schedule, but the Badgers would have been in and eventual national champion Alabama would have been out.

This team could be better. Running back Jonathan Taylor is back after finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is back for a third year as the starter. There is some rebuilding to do on defense, but standouts return at all three levels — line, linebacker and secondary.

Most significantly, given the program ethos and the roots of its success, five players with starting experience are back on the offensive line. Three of them – tackles Michael Dieter and David Edwards, and guard Beau Benzschawel – opted to return to Wisconsin despite being rated as early round NFL draft picks.

Thus we have one of the rarer occurrences in college football: Wisconsin is one of America’s buzziest football teams.

“I think they’ve handled it well so far,” Alvarez says from his spot in the bleachers. “It helps when your leader isn’t going to make a big fuss over it.”

No, Paul Chryst doesn’t do fuss. He’s simply not wired that way.

Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor ran for more yards than any freshman in NCAA D-I history last season. (AP)
Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor ran for more yards than any freshman in NCAA D-I history last season. (AP)

In a league with no shortage of coaches who grab headlines, Chryst almost naturally deflects them. He does not have Jim Harbaugh’s eccentric cockiness, Urban Meyer’s melodramatic narcissism, James Franklin’s emotive showiness, Pat Fitzgerald’s former-star-linebacker strut or P.J. Fleck’s hype-man aura.

You know what Chryst does have? A style-resistant burr haircut, the same look he’s had for as long as anyone can remember — the Gundy Mullet is not happening here. He owns a sweatshirt collection that looks like it could have come from when his father was coaching here. His in-game range of facial emotions suggest that he is barely alive.

If you’re looking for something to market, Chryst doesn’t offer much. Did you know Wisconsin blocks very well? How’s that for sex appeal?

Rick Chryst, who served as the commissioner of the Mid-American Conference from 1999-2009, recalls a time several years ago when he arranged for his little brother to meet with Jim Delany. The Big Ten commissioner offered Paul some thoughts that included the importance of “building a brand.”

“Paul’s looking at him like he has three heads,” Rick Chryst recalled. “A brand?”

The Paul Chryst brand, or anti-brand, is what makes him perfect for Wisconsin. An understated organic program led by a flairless native son. It all fits. It all works.

Alabama can pluck Nick Saban out of the NFL and plug him into Tuscaloosa with legendary success. Florida can go get Meyer — a native of the Midwest who had been at Utah — and win two national titles. Bob Stoops didn’t need Oklahoma roots to win big at Oklahoma.

Wisconsin is a different deal. Roots matter.

“I think it’s important here,” said Tom Oates, longtime columnist at the Wisconsin State Journal. “it’s not a cookie-cutter program. It’s a program that operates in a certain way that is reflective of the school and the state.”

The in-state recruiting base is not huge. But as the lone Division I school in the state, Wisconsin has developed a tradition that retains the best local players. And its walk-on program has become the stuff of legend, taking overlooked in-state players (J.J. Watt, Jim Leonhard, and so on) and turning them into stars.

Few people, if any, can understand that the way Chryst understands it.

His dad didn’t just coach at Wisconsin, he played there as well. His elementary school was about six blocks from Camp Randall, and as a kid Paul was on the stadium clean-up crew after games. While Geep went to Princeton and Rick went to Notre Dame for college, Paul opted to stay home and play quarterback for the Badgers.

After college, the coaching profession took him away for a while, but he’d always find his way back. Two years at West Virginia or in Texas — then a year at Wisconsin-Platteville. A couple of seasons in Canada, at Illinois State, at Oregon State, in the NFL — then a year coaching tight ends at Wisconsin under Alvarez. A couple more years at Oregon State — then back to Alvarez’s staff as co-offensive coordinator.

When Alvarez retired from coaching and brought in Bielema, he retained Chryst as offensive coordinator. After six seasons in that role, Chryst was ready to be a head coach and Alvarez pushed him hard for the Pittsburgh job, which he got. But then Bielema bolted for Arkansas.

“I wanted to bring him back [to replace Bielema],” Alvarez said. “But I couldn’t pull the rug out [on Pitt] after one season.”

So he hired Andersen, an inorganic fit that never worked. Two seasons later, Andersen fled for career-suicide Oregon State and the path was clear for Chryst to come home.

With an institutional memory that dated back to the promising days of Dave McClain in the 1970s and 80s, then through the fallow years before Alvarez arrived, nobody could have a better idea what he was getting into.

“He knows the good times, but also the pain and the tough times,” Rick Chryst said. “You don’t take what they’re doing now for granted. You don’t have to be from there to understand it, but I think it deepens it in a lot of ways.”

Paul Chryst is the personification of the Wisconsin football program, in all its humdrum glory. He is it, and it is him. The only thing that could make his homecoming to raise the Badgers to new heights complete are a few winter snowballs aimed at his car on the way to work.

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