Why Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst should be the Big Ten Coach of the Year — again

The Chrysts lived closer to campus than the McBrides did in those days, so during the Wisconsin Badgers’ football season, Charlie wound up eating dinner with George Chryst’s family on more nights than he’d actually dined with his own.

“On Monday nights, our meal was tater tots,” Charlie McBride, the former Wisconsin assistant and later longtime Nebraska defensive coordinator, recalled to Land of 10.

“There was a little ketchup on them, too. But Paul would always be practicing the piano — it must have been his hour to do it.  He was just learning to play the piano, so we were listening to that while we ate.”

Or, to be frank, trying not to listen.

And trying.

And trying.

McBride laughed.

Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst (left), shown here with former Badgers star tailback Billy Marek and brother Geep (right), was a fixture at Camp Randall Stadium when father George was on John Jardine’s staff from 1972-77. (Debbie McBride/courtesy)

“It wasn’t a concert, either.”

Chryst’s making sweeter music these days. In his three seasons at the controls in Madison, the Badgers are 33-6 (.846) overall, 22-4 in league play, winners of two straight Big Ten West crowns, and a Saturday victory away from the program’s first berth in the College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten) moved up to No. 3 in the Associated Press rankings after a 31-0 demolition of rival Minnesota on Saturday in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the first shutout in the series since 1982.

Despite losing an all-league left tackle to the first round of the NFL draft (Ryan Ramczyk); despite losing his two best pass-rushers (T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel) and his top two tailbacks (Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale) to the pros; despite putting the fate of the offense in the hands of a true freshman (Jonathan Taylor), Wisconsin opened a season 12-0 for the first time in program history. The Badgers rolled unbeaten through a Big Ten slate for the first time since 1912, when the league dance card was only five games.

In other words, that kid playing piano in the other room — and not well — during tater tots four decades ago has built up a hell of a case to become the first Badgers football coach ever to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in back-to-back seasons.

Different verse.

Same song.

‘He’d feel that he was proud of him, I’m sure’

The league doles out two season-ending coaching awards — one voted on by peers, another, named for former Wisconsin coach Dave McClain, is voted on by the media. Since the press award was created in 1972 and the coaches’ vote was added to the mix 10 years after that, no Wisconsin coach has won either honor in consecutive years, and only one other Badgers head man has won either award more than once: Barry Alvarez, the Bob Devaney of Madison, the Godfather.

Chryst split the league’s coaching award last fall with Penn State’s James Franklin. The scribes went with the latter; the coaches with the former.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst’s father, George, and Charlie McBride — both shown here in a clipping from the Badgers’ 1974 football media guide — became lifelong friends while working on John Jardine’s staff. (Wisconsin athletics/courtesy)

“I would say George would kind of take [Paul’s success] in stride,” McBride said of Chryst, having worked with George, Paul’s father, on then-Wisconsin coach John Jardine’s staff from 1972 through ’76.

“He wouldn’t jump out of windows, but he’d feel that he was proud of him, I’m sure. George was a lot like Paul; George was an enthusiastic coach, and everything was positive.

“All his kids did well, and I don’t know whether he ever got tired of congratulating them.”

The South has the Mannings; the Great Lakes have the Harbaughs and the Chrysts. Paul’s older brother Rick played baseball at Notre Dame, holds a law degree from Duke, and was the commissioner of the Mid-American Conference for a decade. Another brother, George Patrick, known colloquially as Geep, played football and baseball at Princeton and logged more than two decades as a coach in the NFL; Geep’s son Keller is a quarterback at Stanford.

“[Paul’s] mother got mad, one time, and I don’t even know what precipitated it,” Charlie’s wife Debbie recalled. “She said, ‘Can’t anybody just play the piano?’”

OK, so they couldn’t always carry a tune.

But man, could they carry a team.

“Paul’s special,” said McBride, who retired from coaching in 2000 and resides in Michigan these days. “The whole family is. They’ve just done well. All of ’em.”

A Chicago native, McBride came to Wisconsin as offensive line coach in 1970 after a stint with Frank Kush at Arizona State, a role he held until 1975. McBride spent the 1976 season as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator and defensive line coach before moving west to Nebraska.

The eldest Chryst joined Jardine and McBride in 1972, coaching at Wisconsin until 1977, followed by a spell as a Badgers administrative assistant before taking a gig at UW-Platteville, where he served as head football coach — and logged a decade as athletic director — until his passing in 1992.

“When I was there, the university had [financial control],” McBride said of Wisconsin in the early ’70s, back when Paul Chryst was a precocious grade-schooler. “You couldn’t take, really, any money into the athletic department — it had to go to the university and basically, they would give you what they felt like. We never had a lot of upgraded facilities or any of that kind of stuff.

“Barry went there and then when [former Wisconsin chancellor] Donna Shalala was there, they opened up the purse strings and that changed the whole program. And I know, talking to Barry and listening to the analysts talk, they just said they followed the Nebraska [model]. They went into the state and they put a fence all around it, too. Walk-on kids, everything [the Cornhuskers] did; they didn’t like a kid leaving the state.”

‘I think they might have pocketed the other 25 cents’

Like George Harrison, Paul Chryst, even while growing up, was the quiet one. Always. He was also an excellent listener, McBride noted, a walking sponge. When he wasn’t playing piano, young Paul was playing mental chess.

“George and myself had a camp in the summertime down at Edgewood [Wis.] High School,” McBride recalled. “And Paul and my son David were in charge of the pop and, I think, the hot dogs.

“After the camp was over, I think we were charging 25 cents for the hot dogs and the pop, and I got a sneaking suspicion they were selling them for 50 cents. I think they might have pocketed the other 25 cents.”

More laughter.

“We don’t know that,” McBride chuckled.

“But they were both kind of, I think, conniving. A little bit.”

One step conniving. Two steps ahead. Same as it ever was.

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