Football: Chryst making early impression at Pitt

By Lauren Kirschman

Paul Chryst is changing the culture of Pitt football. At least that’s what redshirt junior… Paul Chryst is changing the culture of Pitt football. At least that’s what redshirt junior Cameron Saddler says.

Pitt hired the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator in December, making Chryst Pitt’s fourth head coach in just more than a year. For a program faced with so much instability, some change of culture might be exactly what the Panthers need.

After six-year head coach Dave Wannstedt resigned under pressure following the 2010 season, Pitt hired Miami of Ohio head coach Michael Haywood, but he was fired from the position two weeks later after being arrested in South Bend, Ind., on charges of domestic battery against the mother of his child.

Next, Pitt hired Todd Graham, a fast-talking and enthusiastic Texas native who brought promises of “high octane” and doing things “the Pitt way” when he cruised into Pittsburgh to take over the program.

But one 6-6 regular season and a text message to his players later, Graham left to take the same position at Arizona State.

The Panthers found themselves without a coach for the third time in a year, but freshman running back Isaac Bennett said the team didn’t have a difficult time trusting Chryst or his staff when they took over the program.

“Coach Chryst is a really genuine guy,” Bennett said. “You can see it in how he talks and how he approaches us. I trust what he says.”

Bennett said some of that willingness to trust the new coach stems from former running back Zach Brown — who introduced Chryst to the team — vouching for the coach’s character last year. Brown played three seasons at Wisconsin before transferring to Pitt for his final year of eligibility last season.

“Zach Brown … told us about him and said we could trust him,” Bennett said. “So things [Chryst] says, you don’t even think twice about it because we already have that trust.”

Chryst said that when it comes to developing a relationship with players, “actions always speak louder than words.”

“You just do it by being who you are and being straightforward,” Chryst said. “Just trying to be consistent with who you are.”

Away from the field, Chryst is soft-spoken and easygoing. But much like the city he now inhabits, he is completely focused on the game itself. When it’s time for practice, he’s all business.

Saddler said that Chryst’s main instructions for the team are simple: Do what you need to do, be where you need to be, and then the rest will come.

“Coach Chryst is the man,” Saddler said. “He’s so laid back, but at the same time you saw him jump all over me when I celebrated [making a play]. You won’t see that out of me anymore at this camp.”

While Saddler said his new head coach has helped the team members relax, he added that Chryst is intent on “getting business done” when it comes time to play football.

“It’s about doing your job. And that’s the main thing, holding each other accountable,” Saddler said.

Bennett agreed.

“He’s down to business, play when it’s time to play,” Bennett said. “He gets focused quick.”

Chryst attributes much of his coaching philosophy — which centers around respect for the game and teaching — to what he learned from his father, the late George Chryst, who coached at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville for more than 30 years.

“My philosophy is that coaches are teachers and you need to be teaching the game of football and respect the game,” Chryst said. “You need to be able to make players the best players they can be. It’s a player’s game, and the coach’s job is to prepare them so they can play to the best of their ability.”

George Chryst didn’t just inspire his son’s future perspective on coaching. He also ignited Chryst’s desire to enter the profession, although Chryst added that his father never pushed him in that direction.

“I grew up with it,” Chryst said. “I was exposed to it at an early age, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I was fortunate enough to have good experiences along the way so that I wanted to stay in it and keep growing.”

A Madison, Wisc., native, Chryst started at quarterback for the University of Wisconsin before beginning his coaching career at West Virginia as a graduate assistant in 1989.

Since then, he’s worked 23 years as an assistant coach at five different colleges, two Canadian Football League teams and one World League of America football team.

Most recently, he served as the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. He took over the position in 2005, subsequently transforming the Badgers’ offense into one of the best in the country. In the 2011 season, Chryst’s offense averaged 466.9 yards and 44.6 points per game.

The Badgers finished as one of the top five teams in scoring the past two seasons.

Chryst recently finished what was not only his first spring practice as Pitt’s head coach, but as the head coach of any program. But he didn’t find the transition from coordinator to head coach difficult.

He said that much of the necessary adjustment stems from the number of changes he’s had to endure at once, from being a head coach for the first time to moving to a new city. As the head of the program, he said he’s more focused on “the big picture.”

“There’s just a lot involved with it,” Chryst said. “I’ve enjoyed being able to be with more [players] … It’s been different. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad or hard.”

For Chryst, the most challenging aspect of his new job has been the absence of his family — his wife, Robin and their three children — from his everyday life. While Chryst’s family has visited a few weekends since Chryst took the job at Pitt, Robin is still living in Wisconsin while their kids finish out the school year.

Still, Chryst has embraced the Steel City, and he said his family has as well. He added that he’s quickly become a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“It’s always getting to know people,” he said of his move to Pittsburgh. “There’s a lot of things that are worth seeing, and [Pittsburgh’s] got a lot of character to it.”

And according to Chryst, so does his team.

“I think that this is a group that wants to be as good as they can be,” he said. “I’ve certainly enjoyed being on the field with them. These are guys who really like playing the game.

“The attitudes of the players are always what give you energy, and I’m certainly getting that from this group.”

The players are “diving in” to learning yet another new system, Chryst said.

“I think anytime you have something new, there will be some growing pains,” he said. “It’s a process and you just have to keep grinding away at it.”

For Chryst, this season is the beginning of a head coaching career that could’ve started years ago, but he said he never felt the need to “be a head coach just to be a head coach.”

“There is a great tradition [at Pitt], and I feel it’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to be here and feel like we can make a positive impact,” Chryst said.