I hated the Paul Chyrst hire.
He seemed like a nice enough guy and plenty smart, of course. His former players and colleagues praised the hire, but I could not get past the mediocre record at Pitt and the recruiting reputation and the decidedly not-square jaw. It felt very much like a stereotypical brilliant-offensive-coordinator-miscast-as-a-middling-head-coach-destined-to-be-fired hire. I wanted my football coach outgoing and telegenic—a fit and polished man who could march into the homes of recruits in Florida or Texas or Georgia and have them chomping at the bit to come up north to balmy Madison.
Chryst wasn’t those things. He was slightly awkward in press conferences. He was quiet and thoughtful. Some coaches take on a down-homey, “aww shucks” tone when they speak that belies a craven sophistication. Chryst’s quiet Wisconsin lilt seemed legit—an endearing, if slightly concerning, indicator for someone who was looking for a #leaderofmen. I worried that disaster loomed.
I was wrong. Definitively, aggressively, embarrassingly wrong.
Regardless of how the remainder of 2016 turns out, Chryst has blown expectations for this season out of the water. His Badgers beat LSU in Lambeau and Michigan State in East Lansing. They housed Illinois and survived Nebraska and took top-10 Ohio State and Michigan to the wire.
In a season where a bowl game was up in the air, Chryst has Wisconsin in a place where the Orange Bowl or Rose Bowl or even (perish the thought) a berth in the playoffs is within reach. He has managed this with a watch-with-white-knuckles-two-quarterback-system and a defensive M.A.S.H. unit where virtually the entire linebacking corps (simultaneously the heart and spine of the unit) has spent time in the training room. He has done it with a low-key, intelligent style that stands in particularly stark contrast with one of his predecessors who now plies his trade south of the Mason-Dixon.
Kelly Sheffield doesn’t really look like a stereotypical D-I coach in charge of a major program with national title hopes. Slightly resembling the son of J.K. Simmons and Toby from The Office, I suspect that if you saw him on the street you would conclude that he is an accountant or maybe a sales manager at a manufacturing concern.
Sheffield worked his whole life to get to the pinnacle of his profession. He grew up under some brilliant teachers in Indiana before going off to become an assistant coach with stops at Houston, Virginia and Clemson. He made NCAA runs as a head coach at Albany and Dayton before coming to the Badgers.
If you wander into some of the profiles of Sheffield (and if you are digging what the Badger volleyball team is doing this season, you should) the same words keep coming up: intensity, competitiveness, family.
This year’s volleyball team has a remarkably talented roster, with several returning All-Americans. But one of the hallmarks of these Badgers is the ability to come from behind to win, particularly on the road. They did so early in the season against national powerhouse Texas in Austin, against Purdue a few weeks ago and did so again just this last week in Evanston against a Northwestern team that could do no wrong in the first two sets.
Sheffield has instilled in his eminently likeable team a toughness and competitiveness that has seen it through some tough matches and will hopefully help it make a deep run in December.
Leadership, talent—we’ve been trained to think about these things wrong. As with most things these days, I blame TV, abetted by our own laziness and a dash of biological predilection mixed in for good measure.
Despite studies that find the exact opposite, we think extroversion and overt aggression correlate to high-performing leaders. We forget about things like technical acumen, tactical sophistication and relationship-building. We forget that emotional intelligence and commitment to accountability and obsession over detail make for better outcomes than consistently winning press conferences.
Smart, detail-oriented teams win games they shouldn’t. Smart maximizes talent and minimizes mistakes. Smart makes it fun to watch a program.
My favorite Badger football stat this year? Through 10 games, Wisconsin has 28 penalties for a total of 276 yards. That’s basically a little more than half what its opponents racked up and my advanced math skills tells me that means the Badgers are averaging 2.8 penalties per game. That is striking and has undoubtedly led to some victories. That shows a smart, disciplined team coached by smart and disciplined people.
Chryst and Sheffield may be unassuming. They may not be what central casting would send down if you were shooting the made-for-TV version of the Badgers. But they are excellent leaders of women and men and embody the intelligent, technically-proficient leadership we should look for from our coaches (and CEOs and managers). They have set their programs up for success, not only this year, but beyond.
And they did not have to win one press conference to do it.