PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh football coach Paul Chryst understands why his name popped up as a candidate for the open job at Wisconsin.
He’s also through discussing the prospects of him returning to his hometown and alma mater to replace Bret Bielema, who bolted suddenly last week for Arkansas.
“I’m not going to talk too much about that stuff,” Chryst said Friday as the Panthers began preparations for next month’s BBVA Compass Bowl against Ole Miss.
Chryst is from Madison, Wis., and both played and coached for the Badgers before taking over at Pitt last December. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who put in a few calls to help Chryst land his first head coaching job, said it wouldn’t be right for Chryst to leave after just one year.
That’s just fine with Chryst, who endured an up-and-down season this fall as Pitt went 6-6 and earned its third straight trip to Birmingham, Ala., for the Compass Bowl. Chryst called the job speculation “a natural part of the profession” but downplayed the notion there was ever any real chance he would force the Panthers to search for their fifth head coach in two years.
“I think there’s a lot more buzz surrounding (the Wisconsin job) than there was (with) myself and with the guys that we know,” he said.
Still, Alvarez appears to be in no rush to make a hire. The Langeloth native already announced he’ll coach the Badgers in the Rose Bowl, buying him time to find the right candidate. On paper, Chryst would appear to be a natural fit.
Then again, so was Bielema, who was Alvarez’s hand-picked successor. While the move to leave a program he led to three straight Rose Bowls stunned many – particularly Wisconsin alums – it didn’t shock Chryst.
“I think that Bret’s a smart guy and made an informed decision and I don’t think stunned would be the right word,” Chryst said. “I think it’s good for him. He’s probably very happy and that’s good. There are opportunities. There’s a new challenge.”
And Chryst is content about the challenge that lies ahead at Pitt, which will move to the Atlantic Coast Conference next fall. The Panthers were an enigma this fall, beating Virginia Tech and Rutgers while nearly upsetting undefeated and top-ranked Notre Dame. Yet they also lost to Youngstown State and Connecticut and failed to build any real sense of momentum.
Still, the fact he is apparently out of the mix at Wisconsin drew a sigh of relief from a fan base and a roster that’s going through a bit of coaching fatigue. Chryst received a standing ovation from the student section at a Pitt men’s basketball game last week. He appreciated the gesture. He was just a little stunned by it.
“That was a little cheesy,” Chryst said with a laugh before adding, “I haven’t earned it.”
Chryst isn’t one to get comfortable in the spotlight anyway. He’d prefer to let that shine on his players, who remain the main reason he’s sticking around.
“I feel fortunate to be here and I like what we’re doing and I love doing it with the guys that we’re doing it with,” Chryst said. “That’s a pretty good feeling.”
That sense of loyalty is one of the reasons he’s become so popular with his players. It’s also why redshirt sophomore defensive end T.J. Clemmings – who is experimenting at offensive tackle heading into the bowl game – felt a little bit of angst when Wisconsin suddenly opened up.
“I was a little bit worried,” Clemmings said. “This is my third year. I can’t do the whole coaching thing again. I think Coach Chryst will hang around.”
Clemmings just isn’t certain. When asked if he’s convinced Chryst will be on campus when spring drills begin, Clemmings just smiled.
“I hope so,” Clemmings said. “I don’t know what the man is going to do. I can’t say, but I hope he’s around.”
Chryst would rather stop talking about a job he doesn’t have and start talking about the one he does. Though this will be Pitt’s third year spending New Year’s Day in Alabama, he doesn’t expect there to be a motivation issue considering the Panthers are playing a quickly improving team in Ole Miss (6-6).
Besides, if the Panthers are frustrated, they have no one to blame but themselves. A few more wins and their postseason prospects would have offered a different destination.
“This is where you should be,” Chryst said. “This is what we earned. I think we’ve earned the right to go to a bowl. This is where it’s slotted and we’ve got a chance to play a really good opponent I believe.”