Open-door policy paying off for Chryst
August, 18, 2014
By Matt Fortuna | ESPN.com
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPaul Chryst's commitment to his players has helped make Pitt an attractive option for transfers.GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Paul Chryst was canvassing Heinz Field before last year's Notre Dame game when he made a beeline for David Robinson, whose son played for the Irish. Chryst re-introduced himself to the NBA legend, who was at Navy when Chryst's brother, Rick, worked for the Midshipmen's media relations staff. Robinson laughed during the conversation, and he could not help but relay it to Rick minutes after.
"He goes, 'David, Paul Chryst. I'm Ricky's brother,'" Rick recalled. "David goes, 'I thought you were the head coach.'"
Perhaps no story better encapsulates Chryst's understated approach as the public face of a storied program. The son of a Div. III coach, he has been in coaching his whole life, with his only "real" job coming as a teenager when he helped his two brothers on their paper routes. He has had 12 different gigs as a college and pro assistant at 10 different stops, including three separate stints as a player and coach at Wisconsin, where he ended up playing for three different head coaches as a result of the death of Dave McClain.
His background is familiar to a Pitt program that he has brought some stability to now in Year 3, as the Panthers remove further away from the unceremonious exits of Todd Graham and Mike Haywood. And it might also explain the ease with which Chryst has handled one of the team's biggest building blocks: transfers.
It's not that Chryst has welcomed in others at an alarming rate; it's just the success he's had doing so. Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson thriving after joining the Badgers from NC State is one thing. Turning a nearly-broken Tom Savage last year into an attractive NFL quarterback — while relying this year on three different starters who began their careers elsewhere — is quite another.
Chryst insists he hasn't drawn up a secret formula for properly integrating newcomers, saying that simply doing enough homework raises the odds of them turning into success stories.
"If you're bringing someone in, we are truly spending time — even when Russell came in — spending time getting to know them," said Chryst, who was the Badgers' offensive coordinator for Wilson's lone year in Madison. "Spend time talking to people that know them, people that don't necessarily have a vested interest in them, and finding out who they are. Knowing if you have a need. Do they fit a need?"
This year's Pitt starters are expected to include a former Michigan safety (Ray Vinopal), a former Ohio State end (David Durham) and a former Wisconsin receiver (Manasseh Garner).
Vinopal had transferred before the 2011 season, sitting out during Graham's lone year at Pitt. A product of Youngstown, Ohio, powerhouse Cardinal Mooney, Vinopal found a sense of familiarity with Chryst when the coach initially addressed his new players.
"When I first met him, it was like he was saying everything that I did in high school, just on a grander stage," Vinopal said. "And that's when I knew — I had success in the past with it, and I know that Pitt's going to have success with it, in the future and this year."
Chad Voytik saw enough of the same in Chryst in a short amount of time to resist bolting for greener pastures after the coach he committed to, Graham, left for Arizona State. The quarterback even went as far as to help patch the rest of Pitt's 2012 class back together, sold on Chryst's refreshing blueprint to rebuild the program from the inside-out.
Chryst cited the wayward career of Voytik's predecessor, Savage, as an example of why he feels the need to make things right when players enter a new program. Savage sat out two straight seasons before 2013, having been at Rutgers and Arizona before departing the Wildcats due to a coaching change.
"I think you owe that to the player, too," Chryst said of his due diligence. "I know what happened to Tommy when he had to transfer again. That's not right. And so I think you maybe have to be a little more sure that it is a good fit for them and for us, because they don't have another opportunity. That's it."
Rick said his brother took a cue in his approach from their late father, George, who coached Wisconsin-Platteville for 14 years and, like Paul, reveled in camp two-a-days and other fundamental aspects of the profession. Rick said that mentality served the brothers well as they worked their ways up in the sports world. (Rick is a former Mid-American Conference commissioner, while their other brother, Geep, is the 49ers' quarterbacks coach.)
"Whatever we were doing or wherever my dad was, that seemed like it was the biggest thing at the time," Rick said. "The Platteville Pioneers were playing Whitewater, and what could be bigger than that?"
When Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson had trouble one day reaching Chryst out at the Rose Bowl shortly after hiring him, Chryst called back the next morning apologizing, saying that Wilson had pulled him aside for a film session that went late into the night.
"You never have to apologize to me for that," Pederson said. "And I said that's exactly what you want. [He's] just totally committed to his players."
Vinopal echoed that sentiment, saying his ability to approach Chryst is night and day from that of past coaches. Chryst likes to think his open-door policy is more than just a saying, and the success rate of others walking through those doors to Pitt speaks to that.
"I think you're a better coach if you know your players better," he said. "And I don't think by any stretch that I've arrived or any of our coaches have arrived. I think we still need to do a better job of getting to know our players, and them getting to know us. And to me that's part of the fun of it, and there's nothing wrong with enjoying it."