Instead of making excuses, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst is reviving a Badgers trait: Toughness, toughness and more toughness
His best offensive player is coming off sports hernia surgery. His most experienced blocker just retired. Option A at quarterback is an enigma; Option B is a mystery.
His mad-scientist defensive coordinator, the one who gave the Big Ten fresh hell last fall, now works in Baton Rouge, La. Rutgers and Maryland have been replaced on Wisconsin’s fight card with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Glass Joe and Von Kaiser are out; Mike Tyson, Mike Tyson and Mike Tyson, in.
So why is Paul Chryst smiling?
“I’ve never gone into any season, anywhere,” the Badgers’ second-year football coach said recently, “where you felt like, ‘Well, this is a good schedule.’ ”
It’s 147 miles from Chicago, he’s got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and he’s wearing sunglasses. When pundits point to the docket, bray at the odds, Chryst, the Big Ten West’s Elwood Blues, simply shrugs and kicks the throttle to the floor.
The man has excuses, viable excuses, the way Willy Wonka has chocolate. With the LSU Tigers looming at Lambeau Field in roughly a week, Chryst has yet to lean on any of them.
“I would think this provides an opportunity,” former Badgers athletic director and player Pat Richter, an old friend of the Chryst family, said of the current Wisconsin coach. “I think most coaches would like to go into some of those games and play the underdog, and give you an opportunity to make your mark.
“Really, in this case, just because it’s in your second year, (you can) get an idea of what he’s got and what he’s playing with and where they need to improve. And I think it’s always good to get your program to a point where you should be playing these (types of) teams on a regular basis, hopefully, and (have) success. We’ve always had reasonably good success playing against teams that are so-called better than (us). We’ve been an underdog.”
They’ve also been better. Veteran guard Dan Voltz, a three-year starter with an NFL motor but a body dogged by injuries, stepped away from the game earlier this week. The Bart Houston-Alex Hornibrook derby — advantage: the former — went down to the last furlong. Year 2 is when we find out how well Chryst can squeeze blood from a stone, how much of the cool and the magic and the mojo of 2015 was his creation, his touch.
Cynics could cast his debut as a honeymoon of fortune: a roster inherited from former coach Gary Andersen; a senior quarterback in Joel Stave; the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense setting the tempo and cleaning up everyone else’s occasional miscues.
And yet this was also a roster that won 10 games despite the travails of leading rusher Corey Clement, the one mending from that aforementioned sports hernia; despite a carousel of freshmen and sophomore offensive linemen (also inherited from Andersen) and at least seven different starting combinations up front; despite being forced to improvise at tailback and producing the fewest yards on the ground (150 per contest) in Madison since 1995.
“When I looked at Wisconsin last year, I saw a team that that (wasn’t) as physical as (former coach) Barry Alvarez’s teams,” longtime pro scout Russ Lande noted. “I don’t think they were as dominant or physical in the interior for running the ball as they had been.
“I looked at them and it seemed to me that (Chryst) got every ounce out of every bit of talent that they had. They played within themselves. They played under control. They protected the ball. They’re a good, well-coached team. And that’s a big part of what the school has sort of recruited over the years under Barry. And what Paul (brought back) and he emphasized when he returned is, ‘We’re going to do the things that Barry did when he started this program. We’re going to keep hammering and work on fundamentals, because we don’t get the top recruits. We’ve got to concentrate on fundamentals. If we lose, it’s going to be because we were out-athleted.’”
Because even if Wisconsin lost an identity, the Badgers also didn’t lose … well, games. UW posted a 10-3 mark in Chryst’s initial campaign, and in doing so, the Badgers alum became the fourth different head coach in Madison to produce a winning percentage of .760 or better (Barry Alvarez, 2005; Bret Bielema, 2006, ’09, ’10, and ’11; Gary Andersen, 2014; and Chryst in 2015) over the past 11 seasons.
“I wouldn’t even say it’s on autopilot,” Lande continued. “I think the biggest thing is, what Alvarez did, and how it’s been handled when he stepped (into an athletic director’s role) is, he built a blueprint. He said, Hey, ‘Madison, Wisconsin, is not going to attract a kid that an Alabama or an LSU gets. What we’ll get is the 2- and the 3-stars.’ Then they’re going to accentuate certain positions that they go after. And that’s why they’re going to be successful, is because of the blueprint he built and the people he hired.
“(Chryst) went to Pittsburgh and I’m sure he told those guys, ‘You don’t want to be Pitt. You don’t want to have 10 losing seasons for every (winning) one … so we’ve got to work, we’ve got to do this and this.’”
Of the 20 FBS programs with highest winning percentages since 1996, only one — Wisconsin — has had four different coaches win at least 76 percent of their games in a given season. The paint on the front porch changes, but the foundation remains the same as it ever was, stone and steel, unflappable to the last.
That starts with Chryst. For better or worse this fall, it’s going to end with him, too.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler