Before he took the NFL by surprise Russell Wilson spent one year at Wisconsin, leading the Badgers to an unexpected Big Ten title. Paul Chryst, Wilson’s QB coach and now the head man at Wisconsin, looks back at their season together, and ahead as Wilson tries to bounce back from last year’s heartbreak and make a run at a second Super Bowl title
Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
By Paul Chryst
Scott Tolzien had just graduated, and we were looking for a quarterback for the 2011 season. We had heard Russell Wilson was available. He only had one season left, but after we checked in with a few people we knew at N.C. State and heard what they had to say about him, we were definitely interested.
I met with him for the first time when he and his brother came up for an official visit that spring. He met with the coaching staff, but it was important for him to meet with our players too. We had him meet with our entire offensive line. We wanted him to be comfortable with our players, but more importantly we wanted to know how our players felt about him.
Russell is very personable; he’s charming, focused … he has a great energy about him. People may see him now and think, He’s polished, he’s too good to be true. But that’s who he is. And the more time you spend time with him, and you see how consistent it is, you realize that he’s genuine. Every player we spoke with about him said the same thing: Let’s get him.
We were never worried about his size. There was plenty of tape from N.C. State for us to work off of, and that film spoke volumes. Height is only an issue if you see a lot of balls getting knocked down, or if you see him missing things downfield. We had talked to Russell about this: We played a pro-style system, and our line was big—every one of those guys went to the NFL. So if height was going to be a knock on him going forward, this is where he could answer those questions.
He arrived on campus right after Fourth of July. I know that N.C. State and the guys he played with there meant a lot to him, but when he got here he jumped right in and only looked forward. Our guys were excited to have him here, and I think Russell looked around and saw that our guys and our system would be good for him. Our guys were confident, but they were open to having someone new come in. Russell was confident, but he was open to joining a new group. He knew what he had to do. That season, the real story for us was how the team meshed; it was a lot of unselfish guys coming together. That’s why it worked.
I had told him he’d have to compete for the starting job, but it didn’t take long for him to distinguish himself. A big reason was that he picked up our system so quickly. When I think back on our season together, my favorite moments weren’t the wins or this throw or that throw in this game. It was the preparation, the time spent together in the meeting room, the off-the-field rather than the on-the-field. Scott Tolzien had spent five years in our system. With Russell, it was a different challenge for me as a coach. But Russell was a fast learner because he was an eager learner. He took pride in gaining knowledge. Early in camp, he got frustrated with himself when he stumbled spitting out a play. It’s things like that showed you how special he was. He sets the bar high for himself and for everyone around him.
Less than two months after he got here he was a team captain. That wasn’t the coaches’ decision; it was a player vote. Your captains are leaders, guys have to respect them on and off the field, and with Russell it felt right. That was an authentic reflection of how the team thought of him.
By midseason, we were undefeated and Russell’s name was being mentioned in the Heisman race. Then we lost two games back-to-back—our only losses during the regular season—and both of them came in the final minutes. We were losing by two touchdowns at Michigan State and Russell led two late touchdown drives to tie it. They caught a Hail Mary with no time left on the clock to beat us. One week later at Ohio State Russell threw two late touchdown passes to take the lead and they beat us on a long touchdown pass with less than 30 seconds left. And we all know what losing a game does to a Heisman candidate … It never bothered him though. After each of those games, it came back to consistency for him. He never gets too low or too high. That’s how we got through it.
The way our schedule is now I don’t get to see a lot of him during the regular season, but I do get to watch most playoff games, especially the last two years. Even after he threw the fourth interception in the NFC title game, I knew you couldn’t count him out. Once you know Russell, you’re never surprised by anything he does. But you appreciate what he’s able to do. It’s the same with any great player: He trusts his preparation and he trusts who he is as a competitor. He has trained for these moments. A performance like that doesn’t just happen.
I think Russell loves being a quarterback, but it’s more about being the quarterback of a team. His team was in a position to win the Super Bowl. And I’m sure in his mind, it was as a team that they didn’t win that day. That last play isn’t going to affect him. I think even if the result had been different, if that throw was a touchdown, it wouldn’t have changed who Russell is going forward. He’s still going to have that edge to him, he’s still going to do the work and the preparation he needs to do. He’s bigger than one play.