UW football has found consistency under Chryst
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
INDIANAPOLIS--Wisconsin’s program appeared to be in disarray, particularly to those looking on from afar, just three years ago.
Gary Andersen stunned the college football world on Dec. 10, 2014, when he informed athletic director Barry Alvarez he was leaving for downtrodden Oregon State after just 26 games with UW.
That came two years and four days after Bret Bielema stunned Alvarez by leaving for Arkansas, after winning three Big Ten titles in seven seasons as head coach.
The picture painted by at least one national writer was that the problem was UW, particularly Alvarez and the onerous shadow he cast.
“My reaction was it was somebody from afar who has no idea of what is going on,” Alvarez said this week, “so I took it for what it was worth.”
Alvarez believed the only issue was finding a capable coach who understood the blueprint that had led to the most successful two decades in the history of the program:
Keep the state’s best players at home, complement recruiting classes with a stellar walk-on program and play power football.
Paul Chryst, an assistant at UW in 2002 and from 2005 through ’11 before taking over the Pittsburgh program, turned out to be that coach, the perfect fit.
“Paul saved our program when he came in,” Alvarez said.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But no one can deny the rise of UW in Chryst’s three seasons as head coach.
UW (12-0), No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, can secure a playoff berth with a victory over No. 8 Ohio State (10-2) in the Big Ten title game tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I think he is fantastic,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of Chryst. “I actually get along with him very well. I think him and his staff do a great job evaluating players.”
The Badgers are making their second consecutive appearance in the title game and are 2-0 in bowl games and 33-6 overall under Chryst.
“He has won the kids over,” Alvarez said. “The kids trust him. They listen to him. I know it is a lot of coach-speak, but the kids have bought in.
“We take care of our business as we have so far, good things are going to happen. They know that and they don’t get caught up in: ‘What if?’ They just worry about the next game.”
Alvarez didn’t worry long about finding his next coach after Andersen,19-7 at UW, took the Oregon State job. He immediately targeted Chryst, who was in his third season at Pittsburgh.
The steps Chryst and his staff took upon returning to UW have been detailed.
A more rigorous weight-lifting plan, led by Ross Kolodziej, was reinstituted. Chryst and his staff went after several state prospects the previous staff ignored and began targeting in-state walk-ons capable of developing into consistent contributors.
“I thought we were on a slide even though we won 11 games that year,” said Alvarez, who guided UW to a 34-31 overtime victory over Auburn in the 2015 Outback Bowl. “I felt the program was slipping because there was not an emphasis on recruiting the Wisconsin kids first.
“We lost a couple kids because of that. As I kept asking about our walk-on list there was none per se. There were issues there.”
Alvarez revealed several players who would have been fifth-year seniors in 2015 likely would have graduated and transferred out if Andersen had stayed. That included quarterback Joel Stave.
“When Paul was at Pittsburgh he was still in here recruiting the guys that we weren’t recruiting,” Alvarez said. “He had kept in contact with the high school coaches and he was able to jump right back in and win their favor.
“He was able to come in, put in a good strength program and we were off and running. He comes up with a 10-win season. I think we would have been lucky to have a winning season if you lose Stave and some other kids.”
Instead, UW finished 10-3 in Chryst’s first season. The Badgers capped the season with a 23-21 victory over a young but talented USC team in the Holiday Bowl.
UW won the Big Ten West last season and after a crushing 38-31 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten title game rebounded to defeat unbeaten Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl to finish 11-3 and No. 9 in the country.
UW this season is 12-0 for the first time in program history and one of only two unbeaten teams left.
“I obviously learned quite a bit,” Chryst said of his time as an assistant at UW before leaving for Pittsburgh. “And then when I had an opportunity to come back, you want to build on what you think are those foundational principles of the program and then you want to adjust to your (players).
“I think the most important thing is … I am in charge of this program but it’s more than just my program. It’s getting to know your players and what do they need to maximize this opportunity that is four or five years of playing college football.
“Certainly football is a big part of it. But it’s also the growth as a person, getting an opportunity to get a heck of a degree while being the best football player and best team we can be.”
Chryst’s third UW team is on the verge of being labeled the best team in program history by qualifying for the playoff and making a run at the national title.
“Not that we need any validation,” Alvarez said, “but to get in this, man that’s rarefied air.
“That really establishes you.”
Alvarez last season as a full-time head coach was 2005. He served as interim coach in the 2013 Rose Bowl after Bielema left and in the 2015 Outback Bowl after Andersen left.
He still watches UW’s games with the eyes of a coach rather than a fan and anticipates he won’t be able to sit down Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“It’s nerve-racking for me,” he said. “I don’t sit still until that game is put away. People are celebrating and I’m worrying.
“I get upset with mistakes. It’s a part of me. I can watch other games and I couldn’t care less. I just watching and have fun.
“But us? Those are my coaches and our kids. And now you’ve got a grandson involved in it.
“I’ll be a mess.”
Whether UW wins or loses Saturday, no one will be using that term to describe the state of UW’s program.