By the time they left, Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen seemed like they couldn’t wait to get out of Madison.
Paul Chryst seems like he never wanted to leave in the first place.
After a surprisingly turbulent offseason that saw Andersen bolt for the West Coast — and a much lesser gig at Oregon State — Chryst is back in his hometown. The new head football coach was born in Madison, raised in Madison, played at Wisconsin, coached at Wisconsin. He’s as good a mascot for the school as good ol’ Bucky Badger.
After a three-year stint at Pitt, he’s Andersen’s successor. And given how deep Chryst’s roots run in Madison, he might be the last head football coach Barry Alvarez ever hires.
“It's really special,” Chryst said at his introductory press conference back in December. “I grew up in Madison here and was a part — as early as I can remember, Badger football was a part of our life. Then to leave, left town, and I was able to come back as a player. Got a great education and went through it with an unbelievable group of guys that are lifelong friends. Then, you go out on your journey and you try to grow. Then, to be able to come back more than once, it's pretty special. I think that, yeah, it feels like when we were flying in, I've flown into Madison a bunch of times. This certainly felt different. It was pretty neat.”
Chryst served as an assistant under both Alvarez and Bielema, leaving after six seasons as the offensive coordinator to become the head coach at Pitt. And in three seasons helming the Panthers, things didn’t go extraordinarily well, just a 19-19 record and a sub-.500 10-13 conference record. Pitt did go to three bowl games, but none more illustrious than the BBVA Compass Bowl.
But what he did at Pitt doesn’t seem to matter now.
Alvarez went outside for the hire of Andersen after Bielema, his hand-picked successor, left for the SEC after seven seasons and three straight Big Ten titles. But Andersen didn’t prove very loyal, either, ditching the Badgers after an embarrassing 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. After leaving, Andersen made comments about the difficulties of recruiting to Wisconsin’s high academic standards.
Chryst, though, seems to fit the bill of the next longtime Badgers head coach. And it’s his years as offensive coordinator — and his status as one of Alvarez's guys — that likely meant more in the hiring process than any win-loss record at Pitt. Chryst’s offenses lit up the scoreboard in Madison, and along with it came double-digit win totals. Still the big dogs of the Big Ten West, Chryst figures to be able to keep the momentum going.
As welcome as Chryst might be, he still is the program’s third head coach in four seasons, the third head coach — not including Alvarez’s two one-game stints as head coach in bowl games — for some of the team’s players. Another transition, even one back to a familiar face, can’t be the easiest thing.
“I think the best way to help the players through any transition is to try to be as up front, let them know everything that you're doing and why you're doing it,” Chryst said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “I think it's helped me in coming back here that our seniors, guys that have just graduated, they knew not only myself but other members on the staff. I think there's a lot of continuity. You know, coach Alvarez took over with this team for the bowl game and did it for those players. And I was fortunate enough to learn and, really, a lot of my philosophy came from coach Alvarez and some other coaches that I've worked with. So I think that there was a little bit more — they're a little bit more at ease."
That familiarity should help, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, where some players, including Joel Stave, played under Chryst during their freshman years.
When Andersen left for the Pac-12, he was the second Wisconsin head coach to leave for another Power 5 conference program in three seasons. It had many questioning whether Wisconsin — which has appeared in three of the four Big Ten Championship Games, won three of the past five conference titles and appeared in three Rose Bowls in the past five seasons — was a destination job, a program worthy of one of the nation’s top coaches.
A winning culture, perennial championship contention and a machine cranking out NFL players at a rapid rate ought to answer that question.
Chryst received it anyway at his introductory presser.
“I think that when you're talking about destination job, I think you've got to earn the right to stay that long where people qualify it,” Chryst said in December. “Certainly there are two great examples. Coach Alvarez, (and) I think what Bo (Ryan) is doing right now with hoops, they've earned the right to make it a destination job. I sure hope to work to try to make it that. But, you've got to earn it, I believe.”
Chryst is Wisconsin, born and bred. As long as he keeps doing what Wisconsin’s been doing, he’ll have earned that right.