“(His number) showed up,” said Chryst. “I said, Geez, I don't know what to tell him.”
What he thought was a catch-up phone call started a process that ended with him landing a dream head coaching position. Funny how opportunity tends to strike at the oddest of times.
After finally waiting out the state job posting laws to be introduced as the 30th head coach in the history of Wisconsin football, Chryst and Alvarez could finally talk about the accelerated process that brought a former UW quarterback and assistant back to the program.
Chryst returned the missed call to his former boss to find that Alvarez – who was sitting in a jet bound from New York City to Madison - was in the market for a head football coach for the second time in two years after Gary Andersen had resigned to accept the job from Oregon State hours earlier.
The nature of the phone call was to see if Chryst, who was about to wrap up his third season at Pitt, was interested. It’s a phone call Alvarez didn’t make after then-head coach Bret Bielema left because he didn’t feel comfortable further rocking the boat in Pittsburgh.
“I knew the situation at Pitt going through two head coaches in a month,” said Alvarez. “They really were struggling, a struggling program. They needed someone that could come in and stabilize it. I watched very closely from afar how he was building his program. Every head coach that I've ever mentored or anyone that's ever sat behind that desk the first day, it doesn't take three days before they say you didn't tell me all this was going to happen. You can't prepare someone to be a head coach and touch all the bases because there's always going to be a surprise.”
Watching the Panthers, Alvarez was impressed with how Chryst cleaned house and began rebuilding the program, going 19-19 in three seasons and leading Pittsburgh to three straight bowl games. He never told Chryst he was the top target, but Alvarez did say Chryst was the first name on his short list.
Alvarez said he interviewed an unknown candidate interested in the job face-to-face in New York City – he was attending a National Football Foundation awards banquet - soon after talking to Andersen. He then called Chryst to set up an interview for Dec.11 in Tampa, where Alvarez was going to be for an Outback Bowl promotional news conference.
Before meeting with Chryst in Tampa, Alvarez called Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson to inform him that he planned to sit down with Chryst.
With the job originally needing to be posted for two weeks (just like it was when Andersen was hired in 2012), Alvarez was complimentary of the UW administration, the board of regents and the athletic board for granting a waiver to allow the job to be posted for only five business days. That still was a lot of time to process information.
“I told him I have a process I have to follow,” said Alvarez. “I have interviews with others, but obviously you are high on my list or I wouldn’t have asked you to come over from Miami to Tampa…I wanted to make sure we did this right. I did not want to create an issue where he couldn’t be a head coach because of what he did.”
Chryst described the week since the initial phone call as “busy.” He continued recruiting, ran practices in preparation for Pitt’s Jan.2 bowl game and did a promotional press conference for the Armed Forces Bowl. He also met with Pittsburgh’s chancellor, athletic director and players to keep them informed of the situation.
“It's hard not to get ahead and you're excited and you think about the possibilities, and yet you spend a lot of time doing the job that I had at the time,” said Chryst. “Honestly, that was energizing…Being around that group of guys was energetic, and that also makes it difficult because you appreciate who they are and what they're doing.”
Informing his players Tuesday he was going to go to Madison to meet the UW chancellor, Chryst and his family landed in Madison at 4 p.m. local time, got familiar with the changes to the program and was officially offered 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“Communication, I felt like I knew what coach was saying the whole time,” said Chryst. “I was able to communicate with our administration, with our players so I think it actually worked out. Timing wise I thought it was helpful to me.”
Having experienced a sudden coaching change two years ago, Alvarez already had a game plan of how to address the assistants, develop a practice schedule and make sure the players were taken care of, creating a very easy transition.
“The communication we had with the assistants was excellent,” said Alvarez. “A couple assistants came up and said, Coach, that was big time. I know they all have to go home and explain things...All those things I went in and laid out.”
“I had a pretty good plan. I had a pretty good plan last year. I had a lot of people who were interested and a lot of directions I could have gone.”
But in the end, he went with a familiar name to finish off what he hopes is his final football coaching search.
“To be able to do this and come back home to Wisconsin,” said Chryst, “it truly is special.”