Wisconsin fans know the name Paul Chryst quite well. He's a former UW quarterback in the 1980s, offensive coordinator extraordinaire from 2005-11 and one of Madison's favorite football sons.
Wednesday evening, athletic director Barry Alvarez locked in Chryst as the team's 30th head coach in school history, replacing Gary Andersen.
Prior to coming home, Chryst was head coach of Pitt for three seasons. He was hired in December 2011 after Todd Graham bolted for Arizona State less than a year after Pitt hired him.
To educate us more on Chryst's time in the mid-Atlantic region, we welcome Anson Whaley from Cardiac Hill, SB Nation's one-stop shop for Pitt Panthers news and discussion. Make sure you read their column, set in 2144, where every person in the known world has coached Pitt football.
How's the fanbase feeling about another coaching change?
It's kind of mixed, to be honest. Now, everyone has the "Here we go again feeling" that you would expect, but in terms of losing Chryst himself, it's really a divided bunch. I'd say that more fans fall on my side -- wishing Pitt could have kept him since it would have been nice to see what he could have done with the talent on offense that he accumulated over the past few years. Pitt was the youngest team in the FBS and seeing the team under Chryst when they were a little more mature would have been nice.
Paul Chryst Returns
Paul Chryst Returns
The other side of the coin is the blatant mediocrity. Pitt has endured four consecutive 6-6 seasons and Chryst has been at the helm for three of those. That might not be so bad if the ugly losses didn't accompany them. The Panthers lost Chryst's debut to FCS school Youngstown State. Lost to a decent, but beatable, Navy team last year. Lost to Akron this year. Often, Pitt couldn't get out of its own way and, as a result, there are a pocket of fans saying, "good riddance." The only issue I have with that mentality is that coaches often take a while to get things going (particularly brand new ones) and, who knows, success could have been just around the corner. Dave Wannstedt, for example, had a worse start to his career at Pitt and his final three years at the school were the most on-field success the team had in 30 years.
Pitt has one of the nation's top running backs in sophomore James Conner, a future NFL pro in sophomore wideout Tyler Boyd and significantly more depth and talent on the offensive line. The defense that Chryst produced has been underwhelming, and even bad at times. But, overall, I think he was taking steps in getting things slowly turned around -- it just took longer than people wanted or expected.
Chryst was 19-19 at Pitt in his three seasons. Is that record misleading, and how much did he have to remake the program after the carousel of changes there?
In a word, nope. Pitt has been the sheer definition of mediocre and it's pretty fitting that Chryst leaves with a .500 record on the button. As a whole, his teams haven't really been any worse or better than that.
I do think this year's team may be slightly better than their 6-6 record indicates. The team lost to Duke by flubbing a 26-yard field goal (Chryst, by the way, has taken a lot of criticism for not centering the ball in the middle of the field on the previous play, FWIW), lost to Iowa after holding a 10-point halftime lead and dropped a game to North Carolina when they led with only a few minutes to play. Factor in the Akron loss, a game the team should win but clearly didn't prepare well enough, and the season could have been better. But overall, Chryst's teams have been pretty average -- winning most of the games they should, dropping some they shouldn't and beating some decent teams in between.
Chryst was certainly at a disadvantage when he came to Pitt. There were some talented individuals, but as a whole, there was no quality depth. The biggest issue is that Chryst's offenses are run-heavy featuring talented offensive lines, and the Panthers' line when he signed on was an absolute mess. That was his biggest recruiting priority and he did well there. In 2013, the five he grabbed were the most the team spent on that position in a decade. He added three more last year and had three so far for next year's class. The great thing was that he was getting quality guys, too, with some of those guys being four-star recruits and nearly all of the rest were well-regarded three-star guys.
In addition, he had several of the guys from Todd Graham's quirky spread offense, which didn't really fit his style. Granted, he wasn't completely starting over since the guy before Graham, Dave Wannstedt, ran a pro-style offense. But when you factor in that he was trying to convince kids to come to a place that had undergone so many changes before him, he really had his work cut out for him.
What did Chryst do well in his first head-coaching gig, and what should he improve upon?
The offense was clicking pretty well this season, and as I mentioned earlier, the offensive line he was building up was turning into a very good unit. I also liked his approach to discipline since he was a pretty no-nonsense guy. Pitt had a five-star running back, Rushel Shell, that left the program and, after reportedly trying to go to Arizona State (where he was blocked by Pitt) and then UCLA, he tried to come back to the program. Despite his obvious talent at an area Chryst sorely needed, many reports say that he refused to let him come back. That turned some fans off, but it also made it pretty clear that he wasn't going to cater to players' whims.
I also think Chryst is an honest guy. Our site's writers have been to training camp practices in the past and he just comes off as a down-to-earth coach. He's not going to give you bulletin-board material, but doesn't seem like someone that is going to blatantly throw out lies, either. Players see that and unlike when Graham left, a lot of them have said good things about Chryst on Twitter in the wake of this. Just a really well-liked guy by most accounts.
The biggest criticism of Chryst has been on the defensive side. He took a gamble on an unproven coordinator, Matt House, who was a target for criticism this year due to numerous defensive breakdowns. Then there have been the in-game gaffes, which new coaches are going to make from time to time. I mentioned his lack of centering the ball on the field in the Duke game, leaving his kicker to make a short field goal at a poor angle. Another questionable thing he has done was pull starting running back James Conner at crucial times this season to give him a rest that may not have been all that advisable -- especially when games are on the line. Overall, I think his game-coaching has improved. But he still makes some questionable decisions and that's definitely an area for improvement.
Finally, Chryst gets taken to task sometimes for underwhelming recruits. While we don't know what goes on in recruiting visits, some family members of recruits/players have even said some negative things of the staff. It's worth pointing out that he has a pretty good reputation with many of the high school coaches in the area, though, so it just depends on the personality of the recruit, I suppose. But Chryst hasn't given the vibe of being a dominant or aggressive recruiter that's necessary to take programs to the next level. He shouldn't change his personality, but it would help him to have a staff with go-getters focused on excelling in recruiting.
How did Chryst transform the Pitt offense? Was it still the traditional pro-style many saw when he was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin?
I won't go into too much detail since I mostly covered this above, but he definitely transformed the offense by adding depth to the backfield and offensive line. Pitt has a glut of talented running backs and I wrote earlier this year that I can't imagine them all sticking around -- I think they'll have like eight or nine guys on the roster for next year with most of them being well regarded. Pitt landed a four-star kid, Darrin Hall, seemingly out of nowhere this year and despite having a lot of young talent in the backfield. That was kind of a testament to how much Chryst has built up the running game.
I expect that you'll see the same Wisconsin style of offense that you did when Chryst left to come to Pitt.