"New" head coach Paul Chryst comes in this job welcomed as if he were an old friend, and it should provide him a wide berth from fans - but how wide will the berth eventually be in 2015?
When I was a kid in Racine, Wisconsin, I played sports like a lot of kids – in my neighborhood, at school, on organized teams. Mostly, soccer, but some baseball and, as I got older, softball. Softball was the best because I played in adult church leagues and got to play with older brothers, regular guys, and a few aging ex-jocks. When I hear Paul Chryst talk in interviews – in any format – he reminds me not only of those older guys but also of nearly every single coach from whom I learned about technical aspects of sports.
Maybe, because like him, I grew up in Wisconsin; he sounds like those guys in tone and temper and looks a lot like them, too – right down to the tobacco he may or may not still chew. I never knew or played with anyone like Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, or even a Tim Beckman – most likely because I wasn’t ever much better than an average player, but equally so because those kind of head coaches are special personalities – it takes a little crazy to get to the top of college football coaching. Those guys are variously extremely driven, high-intensity, and, in some cases, just plain weird. Few “regular” people come across the type very often.
Chryst, on the other hand, doesn’t seem like any of those head coaches (obviously I, and just about anyone reading this, don’t know him personally). In fact, he doesn’t even come off as particularly erudite, brainy, or intense. When he talks to the media, he’s not high-minded, arrogant, or even football geeky; he’s even worked on his media approach with experts. Most people call him “down to earth.” Even as he often reveals very little other than his obvious, but yet still subdued, enthusiasm for football in general and this job, and this team, in particular, he’s perceived by nearly everyone as “honest.”
Most fans know his mild-mannered exterior also merely lies on top of his considerable offensive football acumen. He might be underestimated by opposing fans, but rarely by opposing coaches. For Wisconsin, he showed it as an offensive coordinator; the offenses of 2009, 2010, and 2011 are your evidence. That success, any maybe his familiarity to us, makes it easy to forget that we still have to wait and see how he applies all this as Wisconsin's head coach.
There is his well-known and well-documented background in Wisconsin Badger football; it’s as if he was born for this job. But I suspect that many, if not most, Wisconsin fans grew up in a more or less similar, and Wisconsin(-y), milieu to the one I did and I also suspect that this kind of perceived familiarity, personality-wise, accounts just as much for the warm welcome he’s received from Badger football fandom at large. We relate to him because he comes off like so many people we knew growing up and/or know now in our everyday lives; it’s a little preposterous really, but we feel like we “know” the guy.
The more senior members of the media covering Wisconsin have often treated Chryst as a prodigal son returned home, but who can blame them? They DO actually know him personally and have for years. There's certainly no dereliction of duty, but the media's handling of Chryst, especially when he was hired and introduced, has helped shape fans' reception of him as well.
By the same token, these widely held feelings on the part of fans that balance seems to have been restored to the Force, especially after the apparently ill-fitting Gary Andersen bolted for a something of a lesser position (two years after erstwhile Barry Alvarez acolyte Bret Bielema did roughly the same thing), have tended to gloss over at least some legitimate concerns as Chryst opens his tenure. His 19-19 record at Pitt is underwhelming, even if that program was a basket case when he took it over. Even though his first classes at Wisconsin came or are coming together well enough, he’s never been known or seen as an ace recruiter. Then there’s what happened at Pitt on defense under his watch; the longer Dave Aranda stays, the better, but it can’t be forever for such a rising star. Nevertheless, until on-field results start to be compiled, Chryst will be given the benefit of the doubt by most fans because of his deep ties to the program and, equally, his familiar, oh-so-“Wisconsin” personality.
Chryst does step into a situation where the team he takes over just won a conference division title and was, on the whole, fairly young. Even after losing a Heisman runner-up, it’s the consensus opinion that this team has sufficient personnel to repeat as a division winner; put another way, Chryst is, and probably should be, expected to get the team back to yet another B1G title game. It probably won’t happen, but what if the Badgers are 3-3 in conference and still have a potentially resurgent Northwestern and Ax-rival Minnesota left to deal with? What if Nebraska wins the West? What if Alabama wins 38-0?
When Chryst made the quite off-hand “Quest for Fun” comment during his season-opening press conference, it was revealing. You may hear Beckman or maybe Harbaugh say something like that, but never Meyer. It was reminder that while he brings a serious mind, commitment, and intelligence to this job, there’s an essential element of levity with Chryst, too. This should help the players keep in mind that any pressure in Arlington will be on the Crimson Tide, not the Badgers. On-field performance notwithstanding for now, the same levity should carry this team through the more important games on the schedule this season: at Nebraska, at Minnesota, and, where the lion’s share of any pressure is almost certain to be on the East Division winner, in a quite possible B1G title game.
The comment of course also harkened back to the local adult sports guys of my youth. It’s something most, if not all, of them would have said, although maybe not in so many words. And boy, did help me and my teammates to always give it our level best to win, toughly and usually smartly. Didn’t always do it, but it was almost always fun – when we didn’t win, we usually felt like we didn’t lose, we just ran out of time. For this season, under “new” coach Paul Chryst, the only question is in how many games will it feel, for players and fans both, like the Badgers just simply ran out of time? Or in other words, how long will the honeymoon last?