The Wisconsin Badgers are making their fourth appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game, and Paul Chryst is the third different head coach to take them there.
Few programs possessed the stability Wisconsin football offered. Barry Alvarez was entrenched as the Badgers’ head coach, guiding them to three Rose Bowl victories in 16 seasons and becoming the school’s athletic director while still on the job in 2004.
That allowed him to hand-pick his successor, bringing in Bret Bielema as the coach-in-waiting for two years until Bielema took over the head job in ’06. It wasn’t long after that Alvarez found himself back on the sidelines – twice.
Bielema took Wisconsin back to the Rose Bowl in 2010 before coaching the Badgers to victories in the first two Big Ten championship games. Then, prior to what would’ve been his third consecutive year coaching in the Rose Bowl, Bielema abruptly left for Arkansas, citing that the compensation for pool for his assistants at Wisconsin wasn’t deep enough maintain a cohesive staff.
Alvarez coached the Rose Bowl, then hired Gary Andersen away from Utah State to replace Bielema. Andersen won 11 games during his second season, but just four days after the Badgers’ loss to Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten title game, left for Oregon State. This time around the defection was not compensation-based. Andersen confirmed Wisconsin’s higher-than-usual academic standards for incoming athletes factored into his decision.
After Alvarez coached the Badgers to victory in the Outback Bowl, he knew he needed to find a coach deeply connected to the program, someone who wanted to be there more than anywhere else.
Enter Paul Chryst, a Madison native, former Wisconsin quarterback and long-time Badgers’ assistant before he got the head job at Pittsburgh. Chryst jumped at the chance when Alvarez offered him the opportunity to return home as head coach. Despite Chryst only boasting a .500 record in three years at Pitt, Alvarez believed in the coach and, more importantly, found a man who fully understood and embraced what it meant to coach in Madison. He found a lifer.
Chryst went 10-3 in his first year last season, and now has the Badgers back in the Big Ten title game – their fourth appearance in the annual event’s six-year existence.
“Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen leaving, there were some personal things that went on with them and I really can’t speak on that,” said standout linebacker Vince Biegel, a fifth-year player who spent time under all three coaches. “What I can speak on is Wisconsin being competitive and competing for a national championship, and you see that this year.
“I believe Wisconsin will compete for a national championship every year, and coach Paul Chryst believes in that mindset. I think we’re fortunate to have him on board. He was born and raised here, played here – it’s a winning recipe.”
Senior running back Corey Clement remembers Andersen’s abrupt departure, but also recalls Chryst jumping head-first into the gig immediately following the bowl game. Clement played only five games in 2015 because of sports hernia surgery, but has thrived under Chryst this season and is third in the Big Ten with 1,140 yards.
“Once he got the job, he knew he was going to put the team on a positive path,” Clement said. “He hasn’t looked back ever since, and that’s what you want in a head coach. He’s been with us every step of the way.
“Me and him have drawn very close. He’s a mastermind at this game. I can’t wait to see what else he can do with the teams after we leave.”
There are still a couple things left to accomplish with the current group, though. There’s a chance the winner of Saturday’s Big Ten championship will be considered for the College Football Playoff and a shot at a national championship neither Bielema nor Andersen thought could be won at Wisconsin.
Chryst believes it can be done, and embrace of the program’s culture is rubbing off on his players.
“The one constant that has remained the same within Wisconsin is the culture here,” Biegel said. “That culture, that hard-working attitude that we talk about a lot – smart, tough, dependable – is what continues to make Wisconsin great and why it will be great for years to come.”