- Despite three head coaches in five years, Wisconsin has managed to stay at the top of the Big Ten and enters its fourth conference championship game against Penn State on Saturday.
MADISON, Wis. — The head coach of a team playing for the Big Ten title walked into the back of a Camp Randall Stadium media room just after midday Monday, wearing a gray sweatshirt and gray sweatpants. To say that Paul Chryst declined to stand on ceremony suggests he believed there was anything ceremonious about this, which he almost assuredly did not; upon closer inspection, the ‘W’ and the ‘N’ in the Wisconsin logo across his torso were a bit faded from regular washings over what you’d guess was a long period of time. So it is quite possible that, to discuss this weighty, high-profile moment with conference championship and College Football Playoff consequences, Chryst didn’t even put on the nice sweatshirt.
And then he happily and patiently bided his time while the school’s men’s hockey coach, Tony Granato, finished discussing the week ahead on the news conference dais. Before Granato hit the exit, Chryst whispered and yukked it up with him, in no particular rush to put his own mug before the cameras. After he took his seat to take questions, there was no tension or condescension or pretense.
Likewise there was no evidence that Chryst would recall much about this session five seconds after he left it. He had a 10-win team on the verge of history. And when he was asked about any defining moments of a season that validated his way of doing things, the Badgers coach seemed to indicate that he was not yet prepared to consider the existence or meaning of moments before this one.
“When you’re in the middle of it, you just keep going forward,” Chryst said. “So I don’t know.”
We can answer for him: That defining moment is pretty much right now, and it stands almost independent of what transpires against Penn State on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. A 2016 campaign that produced the Badgers’ fourth appearance in the Big Ten championship game and a fleeting shot at a College Football Playoff berth has been a welcome (and maybe needed) reaffirmation after some uncharacteristic agitation and uncertainty in recent years. It may be a stretch to associate instability with a place that hasn’t posted a losing season since 2001, but having three coaches in five years is no one’s idea of going steady. This season was a reckoning of a kind. Change comes to Wisconsin, and nothing changes at Wisconsin. Plowing ahead remains the house special.
Again, it’s not that disarray plagued the place; Wisconsin now has double-digit wins in seven of the past 11 seasons. But it also had one head coach for 16 seasons and then three in those 11 that followed. And while the latest guy is a 51-year-old homegrown Madison product who was a former Badgers player and assistant and probably will never leave the job unless he’s asked to, Paul Chryst also brought a .500 career record and just three years of head coach experience into the big office atop Camp Randall. There was just enough volatility there to ponder if Wisconsin would come out of it O.K.
The invite to Indianapolis this weekend doubles as a clean bill of health, while also maybe underscoring an imperturbability that explains a lot of why it happened. “This is a team and a place where the guys are always just going to play the game,” Badgers receiver Jazz Peavy said. “Whoever is coaching them, it doesn’t matter. They’re always going to play the game to the best of their ability no matter who’s saying what to do.”
Of course, that voice matters. And when a program seeks steadiness, it is helpful when the voice seems immune to the bumper-car emotional jolts of the sport and the job.
Asked this week to recall the occasions when composure eluded their head coach, Wisconsin players cycled back to a preseason practice that featured a couple intrasquad scuffles, which made Chryst very unhappy, which prompted him to holler a bit and call for sprints on a 90-degree day. They also cited his reaction to an uninspiring effort in a 23–17 win over Georgia State on Sept. 17—“Coach was hot,” cornerback Sojourn Shelton said—and that ended the list.
After Gary Andersen left for Oregon State just two years after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas, Chryst arrived as the antidote to upheaval at the top, fully equipped with a metronomic personality and a plan to match. “He said being perfect is just being consistently good,” Badgers tailback Corey Clement said, recalling those first get-to-know-you confabs after Chryst got the job.
The first task was imbuing stability, even if Chryst didn’t see it exactly that way. “I was really appreciative of the opportunity and you want to do a good job,” the Badgers coach said while leaning against a wall in a narrow Camp Randall Stadium hallway after his Monday news conference was done. “It wasn’t, how can we calm the waters. It’s just, what does this group of players need right now, and let’s do it.”
Chryst focused on building according to the formula he knew fit the place—“Wisconsin at its best is one of the top developmental programs,” Chryst said—and winning 20 of 25 games (so far) across his first two seasons suggests he got the formula right. But the value of getting it right so soon should not be minimized. Though the Big Ten West might be largely plush and forgiving, it’s potentially a tough climb back from a slip toward mediocrity for a program like Wisconsin, which is not ideally positioned to swing fortunes dramatically in one or two recruiting classes. Simply reaching the conference championship game creates a perception that the program didn’t stumble despite the tumult, and that Chryst indeed can coach a team to trophies, that he is more than the 19–19 overall record he posted in his previous stop at Pittsburgh.
“We’re competitive,” Chryst said, when asked what the Big Ten title game appearance means in year two of his fledgling tenure. “It means we won the West. But to me, it’s really all about this opportunity for this team. I’m sure there are residual things that come out of it. But really all that matters—this team this year set up to be the best they can be and earned the right to play for the championship. That’s pretty cool for them to do that. It’s about these kids and their opportunity and how can you as a coach help them to maximize it.”
It is suggested that there is, at root, validation in that.
“Wasn’t looking for it, though,” Chryst replied quickly. “You know what I mean? Because it’s not about me and it’s not about that. It’s about the program, big picture, and yet I think there’s nothing more important than the current group.”
That current group includes a senior class that was recruited by Bielema, then mostly coached by Andersen, then coached by Chryst. (“And three running back coaches,” Clement noted with a smile.) Wisconsin football is not supposed to be that complicated. And yet the seniors, standing at 40 career wins, could leave with the most over a four-year period in school history, needing only one more for the record.
In this way, we can understand Chryst’s inclination to deflect commendation for his hand in it. His demeanor may have augmented a hard-boiled approach that was set in place long before he occupied the head coach’s chair here. “I learned real quick the business side of college football,” said safety Leo Musso, who actually played his true freshman season under Bielema. “It is what it is. People have to do what’s best for themselves at the end of the day. One of the great things it has done is it’s made our team closer. It kind of shows each guy chose Wisconsin for Wisconsin, not the coaches. I guess the bittersweet thing about it—it made us understand we’re all each other has got. You have to rely on each other.”
From a tunnel entrance at Camp Randall on Monday, Clement looked out at the rain and an unmistakable sign of the end: The temporary red seatbacks for the bleachers were nowhere in sight. “That’s when I know,” the Badgers’ leading rusher said, cognizant that the ritual removal of the mini-chairs follows another fall of home games come and gone, and this time portends the end of his college career.
He marveled how time flew, and how despite all the transition he weathered, everything and nothing changed. “You’re going to grow, or you’re going to be stagnant,” Clement said. “It’s whether you want to grow or not. Whoever is new to the table, you have to learn from them. Whoever is up next, they have this job for a reason. Pick their brains, see what they can do and hopefully make the most of it.”
It’s been said and done at Wisconsin, which doesn’t look any less like Wisconsin for all the recent tumult. Only two years ago, an epic 59–0 throttling by Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game preceded a coaching exit, which created an opening filled by Paul Chryst in short order. The championship chase of 2016 allowed the program to remain assured of itself. It provided Chryst the firm underpinning he needs to succeed and ensure the commotion keeps to a minimum from here out. He’d probably keep moving ahead anyway, regardless. But some paths are easier than others.