On Dec. 4 Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez was in New York City. The Burgettstown native was getting ready for an annual lunch with some longtime friends from Western Pennsylvania when he received word that his football coach, Bret Bielema, had decided to take the head coaching position at Arkansas.
The knee-jerk response among Pittsburgh sports fans was that first-year Pitt coach Paul Chryst, a Wisconsin native and former Badgers assistant, was sure to be a leading candidate for the job. It would be hard to fault Chryst for going home to his alma mater, but it would mean that a Pitt program in desperate need of stability would spend its third consecutive offseason mired in a coaching search.
Alvarez said he was surprised by Bielema's decision, but had already made one decision when he sat down to lunch with his friends, many of whom had Pitt connections.
"I told them that my guy just left and there's no way that I would consider Paul, and Paul probably wouldn't consider us," Alvarez said. "He made a commitment. It's not right to do that. I recommended him highly to Pitt. Pitt was good enough to hire him. Somewhere along the line there has to be integrity with all of this."
Six months later, Chryst sits in his office, which has a view of the practice fields at Pitt's South Side training complex. It's still six weeks away, but his second training camp with the Panthers already feels like it's just around the corner.
The Badgers ended up hiring former Utah State coach Gary Andersen. True to his word, Alvarez never seriously approached Chryst as a candidate.
"I think there's been some people that have said they're glad I stayed, and I always say I hope they're still saying that a year, two, three, four years from now," Chryst said.
The Pitt coaching staff has been in the rush of recruiting and prospect camps, but always keeps the 2013 season in mind.
"Guys are off the [recruiting] road now, so this is the month when you get to do a lot of football, or try to," Chryst said. "You feel like you can't do enough."
Everything works a little bit smoother this offseason, from the players knowing their routines for the summer, when coaches aren't allowed to be present, to the staff having common experience and cohesion through their first season together.
Alvarez struggled to a 1-10 record in his first year at Wisconsin in 1990, but improved to 5-6 the next season. Two years later, the Badgers won the first Rose Bowl in school history.
"It's a feeling-out period for everybody in year one," Alvarez said during a telephone interview last week. "From the coaches who have never worked together before, that's the first time they've done it. You figure out your position on the staff, your responsibility and your roles. Players get to know coaches, get to know what's expected of them. So it's a feeling out process for everybody. The second year is just easier."
Becoming a Pitt guy
Chryst is not the type of coach that will "win a press conference," as the saying goes. He doesn't come armed with motivational one-liners or back-slapping anecdotes. When he goes out on the offseason speaking junket to alumni and booster clubs, his mission isn't to wow everybody in the room with his vast football acumen.
"I try to ask more than tell," he said. "I want to try to inform myself of different things.
"You've got to get out of the box and get a sense of the people that make up Pitt."
In a region where football dominates fall weekends, Chryst has embraced the role of being the area's college football coach. At his first signing day news conference, he emphasized the importance of keeping WPIAL kids at home, something that was not a priority for his predecessor, Todd Graham.
Shady Side Academy coach Dave Havern played quarterback for Pitt in the 1960s and early 1970s, and has had players recruited by Chryst, Graham and Dave Wannstedt (a teammate at Pitt) before that. One of them, defensive back Reggie Mitchell, opted to go to Wisconsin rather than commit to Graham at Pitt.
"I remember thinking, 'I don't know you. I don't know you guys. I don't have a handle on you,' " Havern said of his interactions with Graham's staff. "From what I'm hearing and what I'm seeing, it didn't ring true. There's something hinky going on here. It's just the opposite with coach Chryst and these guys."
Chryst knows that one season doesn't make him a member of the Pitt fraternity. He didn't attend Pitt, so he doesn't have the automatic cachet that Wannstedt did when he took the reins in 2005.
"I'm earning my way into it," Chryst said. "I really value people that have gone through the experience here. I want to know why they like Pitt. Does that apply now when you go out recruiting? Does it apply to what we're providing for our players now? I think a form of respect is trying to understand the history of the place. I've got a ways to go, but I keep trying to learn it."
Earning the right to stay
When defining "stability" in college football, it's hard to find a better example than Alvarez's 16-year stint as football coach at Wisconsin. Over his final 10 years, the Badgers went to nine bowl games.
Coming to a Pitt program that had five head coaches -- including interims -- in the two seasons prior to his arrival, building that kind of backbone might have seemed like an impossible task to Chryst.
Alvarez and Chryst both quickly acknowledged that real program stability, by nature, takes several years to develop. There was a good reason, though, for Alvarez to help Chryst get the Pitt job in December 2011.
"I thought he'd be a guy to go in and stabilize it," Alvarez said. "He's a guy that doesn't get rattled. He brings a calming effect to the players to start building a philosophy and a program, something they can hang their hats on."
Having the same head coach and all but one of his assistants back for a second year is one small step toward building that foundation for a successful football program can be built.
During his eight years as an assistant with the Badgers, Chryst saw the impact stability can have on the field.
"It does matter," he said. "You've got to earn your right to stay, but that's the goal.
"Are we established? No, because I think that's over time. When I think of 'established,' I think of something that's over a course of time. I think we're working to try and establish an identity. One that fits our players, fits the university, the city, Western Pennsylvania. We're working on that, but I think we've got a ways to go yet."
Sam Werner: email@example.com or Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM