It shouldn’t be a surprise that Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst has risen to become a top-tier — and perhaps underappreciated — major-college coach, especially considering his head start.
His father, George, was a respected coach at Wisconsin-Platteville who died suddenly on Dec. 4, 1992, at age 55. By then, Paul already was a young coach earning his spurs on a career path that would lead him back to his alma mater, the first time as an assistant and then three years ago as the coach.
As Chryst reflected on that journey, which has seen him guide the Badgers to their first unbeaten regular season since 1912 and into a second-straight Big Ten title game — this time against Ohio State on Saturday night in Indianapolis — he said a lot of people have had an influence on his growth.
“Boy, hundreds if not thousands of really impactful people,” he said. “Whether it’s other people you’ve coached with, or ones with nothing to do with football.”
But he grew up in a coach’s home and hung out with the team through his formative years. That was the head start.
“I don’t think it was as much messaging as it was the example,” Chryst said of his father’s influence. “I knew he loved coaching and appreciated the game and those who played it. But I don’t know if he ever told me that. I just knew it.
“It wasn’t ‘Here’s the book. Read it. This is the lessons to be learned.’ I think the best part was the daily living example.”
Chryst developed into a soft-spoken, rarely rattled presence, both in interviews and on the sideline. He returned to Wisconsin in December 2014 from Pittsburgh, his first stint as a coach, from 2011 to ’14. He arrived in Madison to take over a team that had seen a dream season shattered by a 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, followed by Gary Andersen’s abrupt resignation as coach days later.
That team, under the interim guidance of athletic director Barry Alvarez, who had coached the Badgers for many years, went on to beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl, so it wasn’t in complete disarray.
When Chryst took over, he said, he didn’t deliver a “new sheriff in town” speech to the team, either. As his father had shown him by example years earlier, taking leadership is a process.
“It’s over time that you express what you want the program to stand for,” Chryst said. “Our job is ‘How can we help these kids be the best they can be, in football, get a meaningful degree, grow as people?’ Every message ties into that.”
Along the way, though, the Badgers have won at least 10 games in each of his first three seasons. And in this unbeaten season, they stand No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings and seem a shoo-in to make the final four for the first time if they beat No. 8 Ohio State.
Chryst has drawn rave reviews, especially from a prominent player who was on the Badgers when Chryst was there as an assistant a few years ago.
“Coach Chryst is the perfect man to lead Wisconsin football,” J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans tweeted earlier this month. “Great coach and an even better man. The type of guy you’d do anything for at the drop of a hat because you know he’d do the same for you.”