Madison, Wis. — Paul Chryst was a feel-good hire in the winter of 2014.
The Wisconsin native, who had played and coached at Wisconsin, returned home after three years as the head coach at Pittsburgh.
He was introduced as the school’s 30th head coach on Dec. 17, 2014. That came one week after athletic director Barry Alvarez learned Gary Andersen was leaving before the end of his second season in Madison to take over the Oregon State program.
Still stinging from the stunning departure of Bret Bielema, who left UW for Arkansas just days after the 2012 Big Ten title game, Alvarez was determined to land a quality coach who also viewed UW as more than a rental property to use before looking for a permanent home.
Chryst was the obvious choice, though he wasn’t universally embraced. Some UW fans expressed concern about his 19-19 record in three seasons at Pittsburgh, including a 5-9 mark in games decided by seven points or fewer, and wondered whether he had the chops to recruit well enough to keep UW in contention for Big Ten titles.
After two seasons, Chryst and his assistants have done just about all they can to silence any critics. UW is 21-6 under Chryst, including an 8-5 mark in games decided by seven points or fewer, and has one Big Ten West Division title and two bowl victories. The Big Ten meetings are set to be held Monday and Tuesday in Chicago and the Badgers, who navigated a brutal schedule to finish 11-3 and No. 9 in both national polls last season, received 31 of 38 first-place votes from a panel of Big Ten voters to win the 2017 West Division title.
“I’m one of those who did have some questions about Paul as a head coach after the time at Pitt,” Lee Barfknecht, a longtime columnist for the Omaha World-Herald said. “But I think going back to Wisconsin totally got him into his comfort zone. And maybe being out of his comfort zone at Pitt helped him grow as a coach. He probably had to deal with some things he hadn’t seen or dealt with before.
“I think he is such a hand-with-glove guy with what is going on at Wisconsin. I was really impressed with the job the coaching staff did last year — with the offensive line injuries and the line being far below what Wisconsin folks are used to.
“And then to take on the schedule that they took on and win as many games as they did and come within a touchdown of Michigan and Ohio State. I thought it was an incredible season.
“To come as close as they did to going undefeated, I thought that was a heck of a coaching job.”
UW’s three losses last season each came by seven points — to Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.
ESPN.com writer Adam Rittenberg wondered whether the taciturn Chryst would feel comfortable spending more time schmoozing with donors and recruits as a head coach and less time scheming in the video room.
“The one thing we all questioned with Paul was: ‘Would he embrace the things that all head coaches have to embrace from an outreach standpoint to be successful?’” Rittenberg said.
Chryst has done that, despite the fact he is better suited for small-group sessions, particularly with recruits and their families. Chryst won’t ever be a prolific public speaker, but that isn’t an obstacle to assembling a solid coaching staff, recruiting talented players and making winning decisions on Saturdays.
“He has elevated this back to where it was at the end of his time as a coordinator,” Rittenberg said, “in short order.”
Chryst inherited a much more stable situation at UW than when he took the job at Pittsburgh. Including two interim coaches, Chryst was Pittsburgh’s sixth head coach in a span of 13 months. He implemented new schemes on offense and defense and tried to retool the roster.
Andersen’s two seasons at UW offered some controversy but the play on the field generally was solid. UW finished 6-2 in the Big Ten and 9-4 overall in his first season. The Badgers won the West Division with a 7-1 mark in his second season. The loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game left UW at 9-3 overall and Alvarez guided UW to victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. In addition, the 2014 class assembled by Andersen and his staff boasts 13 players who have started games under Chryst.
The No. 1 task facing Chryst and Joe Rudolph, UW’s offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, when they returned to UW was to rebuild the offensive line. Andersen and his staff worked in 2013 and ’14 to increase the number of linemen on the roster. UW had just 12 scholarship offensive linemen in Andersen’s first season, including three freshmen signees.
Where Andersen fell short was in changing the focus of the strength and conditioning program. The changes, which included far less lifting during the season, stunted the growth of the younger linemen. With the return of Chryst and Rudolph, and the addition of strength coach Ross Kolodziej, the gains have been slow but steady.
“It seems like he has gotten back to, at least offensively, the style that had made that program so successful,” said Tom Dienhart, a senior writer for BTN.com and a graduate of Purdue. “It looked for a time like that offensive line had fallen into disrepair.
“Chryst has come in and righted the ship on that offensive line in particular. That has been the bellwether. When I think of Wisconsin football since Barry Alvarez got there in 1990, I always think of the offensive line and being physical. (Chryst) has got that unit, it looks like, poised to be one of the Big Ten’s best once again.”
The next step for UW under Chryst is to win a Big Ten title. Alvarez accomplished that feat in his fourth season. Bielema did so in his fifth. Chryst could do so in his third season. UW came close last season but suffered a 38-31 loss to East Division champion Penn State. Since the Big Ten did away with the Legends and Leaders divisions after the 2013 season and realigned teams into the East and West divisions, the East champion is 3-0 in the league title game. Ohio State routed UW in 2014, Michigan State rallied to defeat Iowa in 2015 and UW blew a 21-point lead last season.
“If you can do a couple of things you’re going to have a chance to beat anybody — play good defense and run the football,” Dienhart said. “If they win that division, I still like their chances in a one-game showdown in Indianapolis against anybody from that other division.”
Whether UW can win the league title and perhaps make a push for a berth in the College Football Playoff could depend on whether the staff can improve the explosiveness and efficiency of the offense and maintain the superlative play of the defense, which will be led by first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.
Over the last five seasons UW has allowed an average of 17.2 points per game. That is the No. 2 mark nationally behind Alabama (14.3). UW averaged a school-record 44.1 points in 2011, Chryst’s final season as offensive coordinator. The Badgers haven’t averaged more than 34.8 points in the last five seasons. That run includes marks of 26.8 in 2015 and 28.4 last season.
“The one thing I think Gary Andersen did, and they’ve been able to continue, is to become more of a defensive-focused team,” Rittenberg said. “They were never bad on defense with Bret and Paul but it was never their calling card.
“But now it really is. They have a chance, if they can get the offense back to where it was when he was as a coordinator, to have a pretty complete team without having to recruit at a level that is probably above their means.”
Chryst turns 52 in November. The night he was introduced as UW’s head coach he was asked if he had taken over his dream job. His response: I have to make it my dream job by winning.
Chryst appears on his way to making UW his final destination, his dream job.
“He had a modicum of success at Pitt,” Dienhart said, “but people wondered if he could win at a high level that would be expected at Wisconsin.
“But the one thing that quelled my fears … you talk about fit. And boy, he is a Madison guy. He is a former Badger. He was an assistant coach there. It is in his blood, in his DNA.
“He knows how to win at Wisconsin. He knows the culture. He knows how to recruit. I mean, if things go right, this guy could coach there for 20 seasons.”