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Can Paul Chryst elevate Wisconsin or simply sustain?

3/18/2015

MADISON, Wis. -- Paul Chryst doesn't walk around Camp Randall Stadium wearing a "Hello, my name is ..." sticker. The old new Wisconsin coach is a familiar face around here.

He doesn't have to get to know his boss better. (Athletic director Barry Alvarez twice had Chryst on his staff when Alvarez led Wisconsin's football program.) He doesn't have to introduce himself to older players like quarterback Joel Stave, fullback Derek Watt or left tackle Tyler Marz. Chryst was Wisconsin's offensive coordinator during their freshman season in 2011.

The new coach hasn't repurchased his old house, although he probably could. After he left in 2011, he sold it to a guy named Gary Andersen.

"There's a lot of things that are really familiar and comfortable," Chryst said.

Coaching change typically brings turbulence. At Wisconsin, it has brought familiarity, and not just with Chryst. Joe Rudolph, like Chryst a former Wisconsin player and a Badgers assistant from 2008-11, is back as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Rudolph is one of four assistants Chryst brought to Wisconsin from Pitt, where he coached the past three seasons.

Also on staff is Mickey Turner, a Wisconsin tight end from 2006-09, and John Settle, who coached four of the top 10 rushers in Wisconsin history as an assistant from 2006-10.

Like the line from "Beer Barrel Polka," a fan favorite played by the Badger Band during UW games, the gang's all here (again).

"When you have confidence in the guys you’re working with, it frees you up to really coach the kids," Rudolph said. "Instead of wearing each other out about meetings or what you’re going to do, you have a lot of confidence in how the kids are going to be coached.

"You're speaking the same language."

Added Chryst: "You can shorten the learning curve."

Chryst was the sensible hire for Wisconsin after Andersen shockingly left for Oregon State on Dec. 10. Alvarez's search essentially boiled down to one thought: Call Paul. After being jilted for the second time in three years, Alvarez needed a coach who knew exactly what he was stepping into and who wouldn't look for the first path out.

He found it in Chryst, a Madison native who played quarterback for the Badgers. Those who know Chryst don't think he'll leave for any other college job. He gives Wisconsin stability, as well as the knowledge of what it took to built one of college football's most consistent winners.

Since Alvarez's breakthrough season in 1993 -- when Rudolph was an All-Big Ten guard -- Wisconsin has had 18 seasons of eight or more wins, nine seasons of 10 or more wins, six Big Ten championships (three outright) and only two losing seasons (none since 2001). Wisconsin is one of only five schools with nine or more wins in nine of the past 11 seasons. The others: Boise State, LSU, Ohio State and Oregon.

Like Andersen, Chryst inherits a great situation with the Badgers. He's set up to sustain, which, for most programs, would be terrific news. It means 10-win seasons, league and division titles, and top-20 finishes.

Maybe that's enough at Wisconsin, too.

But there's another level for the Badgers, one they've clawed at for years but not quite reached. They lost three consecutive Rose Bowls. They blew a big lead against LSU in last year's opener. They flat-lined against Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten title game.

Those games, fairly or unfairly, keep Wisconsin among the nationally respected, but not the nationally elite. It leads to this question: Can Chryst be a program elevator, or just a sustainer? He went exactly .500 (19-19) at Pitt.

"Every person that joins any group, in this case the program, you want it to be better when you left than when you came," Chryst said. "I’ve got a great appreciation for those 20 years -- I haven’t been a part of all but a good chunk of those -- and know what it took to get to those and what was invested. Your first goal is to get to that level and then you want to keep improving it. If you're a champion in this league, you're in the national discussion."

"But," he warns, "it doesn't just happen."

Chryst doesn't take Wisconsin for granted. Not the graceful rushers or punishing linemen who emerge seemingly every season. Not the players he's just now meeting, or even the ones he recruited or coached three or four years ago.

The details matter, which Chryst emphasized at the first spring practice Sunday.

"If there’s a buzzword, I'd say to a couple kids, 'Do you know what coach means there?'" Chryst said. "And they said, 'I think so.' And I said, 'Well, make sure you know what coach means there.'

"You don't want to assume anything."

Don't assume dramatic changes at Wisconsin under Chryst.

"If you have to change what’s at your core and who you are from what got you there with consistency and sustainability," Rudolph said, "that's where it's easy to get off track."

Chryst will attempt to win the Wisconsin way, while striving to push the program just a little further. His tenure begins against Alabama on Sept. 5, a game that will "test everything we do," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said.

The ultimate tests for Chryst will come later, over multiple seasons. He might end up as the familiar face with familiar results.

Or, he might be something more.