ARLINGTON, Texas - Michael Caputo had little reason to interact with Paul Chryst when the now fifth-year senior captain was a wide-eyed true freshman. Caputo was more concerned about trying to grasp the concepts of a complex college defense and adjust to life away from home, having no time to fraternize or bother the Wisconsin offensive staff.
But that didn’t stop Chryst from making sure he got to know who Caputo was as a person and a football player.
“We would always talk and he really made an effort to get to know the players on the other side of the ball,” Caputo recalled. “Offense or defense it didn’t matter. He was willing to take the time out of his day to talk to a redshirt on the other side of the ball who wasn’t going to play that season. That’s one of the things that resonated with me, one of the little things he did because he cares so much about this program.”
Making his Wisconsin head coaching debut tonight, Chryst won’t be easing into the gig when No.20 Wisconsin kicks off tonight against No.3 Alabama in AT&T Stadium at 7:14 p.m.
Since Wisconsin’s football program began in 1889, only one head coach has begun his tenure against a ranked opponent. That was John Jardine, who began the 1970 season losing 21-7 at No.18 Oklahoma. UW finished 4-5-1 that season, including a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten.
There wasn’t much fanfare when Chryst was hired to be the 30th head coach in program history back in December, especially considering he had gone only 19-19 in his first three years as a head coach at Pittsburgh. He was viewed as the safe hire by athletic director Barry Alvarez, bringing stability to a program that suddenly was on its third head coach in 24 months.
But Caputo knew differently, a reason why he told the younger players about how big of a hire this was for the direction of the program.
“Everybody embraced him to the fullest,” said Caputo. “We really didn’t flinch as a team or worry about the new coaching staff coming in, but when we heard it was Coach Chryst, the older guys who were here back in 2011 all got excited. The veterans really instilled positivity when Coach Chryst was coming in and everyone loved in once he got here.”
With his roots as a former Wisconsin coach, not to mention being from Madison, his dad having been a former players and assistant and himself having played quarterback for the Badgers in the 1980s, Caputo believes Chryst was embraced quicker by the players than former head coach Gary Andersen.
“Two very different situations and two very people, both equally accepted by the team, but Coach Chryst meshed right away,” said Caputo. “He resonated with us. We felt very comfortable with his philosophy. We accepted him, he accepted us and everybody came together.”
Chryst isn’t the only familiar name returning this season for the Badgers. Of the eight people he hired to join him and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, the lone Andersen holdover, three assistants either coached or played for the Badgers. It’s both in the case of offensive coordinator/line coach Joe Rudolph, who graduated in 1995.
The list goes deeper. Chryst hired four graduate assistants (Ethan Armstrong, Jon Budmayr, Antonio Fenelus and Bill Nagy), a quality control assistant (Taylor Mehlhaff) and four strength coaches (Ross Kolodziej (head coach), Kyle Costigan, Bradie Ewing and Jamil Walker) who all played for Wisconsin.
The hiring of Kolodziej was particularly important to Chryst’s philosophy. With the program focusing more on conditioning than weight strength under Andersen and strength coach Evan Simon, causing some grumbling from a handful of players behind the scenes, the Badgers lost some leverage when going against bruising teams.
That’s not the case with Kolodziej, who started 45 games for the Badgers at defensive tackle from 1997 to 2000. Having been a part of back-to-back Rose Bowl championship teams and playing seven years in the NFL, Kolodziej and his staff push the weight during a fast-paced offseason.
“(Adding strength/weight) wasn’t the approach (before); that’s a little bit of the catch up,” said Rudolph “I love that (Kolodziej has) got them, that he’s getting after them and he’s fighting to get them there. That’s going to be steps that we need to take.”
Even with a bigger role at Wisconsin, Chryst’s persona hasn’t changed, at least in Caputo’s eyes. Although he has admitted to working on his public speaking and refining his approach over the past several years, Chryst still has the same dry sense of humor and isn’t real flashy from a national standpoint, but he still has that personable approach and a keen sense for developing offensive game plans that maximize the roster’s potential.
He’s been waiting his whole life to coach the Badgers. He now gets that chance.
“I really like how he conducts business,” said Caputo. “He still has the player’s back, still takes the time out of the day to joke around with you or talk about something serious. That’s how you know he’s a good person and a good coach.”