MADISON – No matter the situation, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst has never made himself the focal point in a particular game or instance. In a way, it’s a trait he learned from one of his mentors in Nebraska coach Mike Riley.
“I learned from Mike as much as anything that the game isn’t about us,” said Chryst. “I think we take coaching serious and feel really fortunate to be coaching. We also feel the game is played between the lines. Certainly we want to compete and you want to win, but our relationship goes a lot deeper.”
The focus for Chryst and Riley won’t be on one another but trying to improve their struggling programs in the next week before they meet Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
Riley – in his first season at Nebraska after spending 14 years over two stints at Oregon State – is trying to repair a defense that has given up the most points in the Big Ten. Chryst – returning to Wisconsin after spending the last three years at Pittsburgh – is trying to bring along a patchwork offense that didn’t score a touchdown in a home game for the first time since Sept.2003.
“We've got a great challenge ahead of us going down to a classic football venue,” said Chryst.
Riley and Chryst have worked together for nine years at three different spots - with two separate stints at Oregon State - at three different levels. It started with Riley making a phone call to a jobless Chryst in 1991 after one of his assistant coaches with the San Antonio Riders of the now defunct World League of American Football left. Riley needed a receivers coach and the friendship was born.
They were together at Oregon State from 1997 to '98, then again from 2003-04 - both times with Chryst serving as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and Riley as head coach.
During the second stint, they put together an offense that ranked in the nation’s top 10 and set a school record with 433 points (33.3 points per game) and becoming the first Division I-A team to have a 4,000-yard passer (Derek Anderson) a 1,500-yard rusher (Steven Jackson) and two 1,000-yard receivers (James Newson and Mike Hass).
When Riley got the head coaching job with the San Diego Chargers in the NFL from 1999 to 2001, he brought along Chryst as tight ends coach. During the first two years of that adventure, the team’s quarterback was current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.
They’ve faced each other once as coaches, a 35-0 Wisconsin victory over Oregon State in 2011 when Chryst was just finding out how special a quarterback by the name of Russell Wilson could be.
Chryst says ways to coach, teach and study the game all came from his time with Riley.
“Mike has been a huge influence and had a big impact on the start of my coaching career, and really as a person,” said Chryst. “I’m looking forward to be able to see him more. He’s been a big influence in my life.”
So much of an influence that Chryst and Riley routinely got together in San Antonio every spring to talk football, breakdown film and enjoy one another’s intellect on the game. Riley calls it a “football summit,” spending four days analyzing film.
Those film sessions have waned now that they will face off every fall, but the phone calls are still made and the relationship will be just as strong post game as it is today.
“He was a great role model, a father to his kids in his profession,” said Chryst. “Here’s a guy who has had a lot of success, yet he didn’t have to compromise who he was as a person. The list of things I’ve learned from Mike go on and on.”