New Pitt head football coach Paul Chryst works with wide receiver Ronald Jones.
By Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
First-year coach Pitt coach Paul Chryst may never win a battle in a news conference but those who have worked with him over the years say Panthers fans will grow to love him because he will win where it counts most -- on the field.
And given the circus-like atmosphere that has existed in the program in recent years, perhaps Chryst's dry, straight-forward, unassuming approach is exactly what a program which has become anything but stable or consistent needs.
But the fact that Chryst is quiet, humble, genuine and extremely down to earth only masks the fact that a competitive fire burns in him and that he is committed to building a winning program, one loaded with players who will make fans proud on and off the field.
"Paul isn't a guy like the last guy Pitt had who is going to sit there and blow smoke about what he is going to do and how great he is," said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, a former Badgers coach who had Chryst on his staff.
"He isn't going to dazzle you, he isn't likely to be a press-conference guy, he isn't going to be real flashy -- but what he will do is be the most prepared coach out there week in and week out. He is a guy that loves football, he loves to compete, he understands offense better than most guys in the business and he is going to work at it and work at it until he gets it right."
Alvarez was, of course, referring to former coach Todd Graham who was a fast-talking salesman-type who often used clever catch phrases such as "high octane football" and rhyming platitudes about his philosophies on coaching and life then delivered a mediocre team.
Chryst is much more measured in his words. He doesn't liked to be labeled a "pro-style system" guy because, while he values certain things, such as a strong running game, he likes to build a system around the strengths of his players.
And that's why Alvarez, from Burgettstown, Washington County, said Chryst is the perfect fit for Pitt because he is an old-school "faith, family and football" guy whose work ethic and values are similar to people in Western Pennsylvania.
"He is not one of those 'on the phone' guys, he isn't always searching for the next best thing," Alvarez said. "He is working hard, and he doesn't waste time because he is a great family man, a great husband and father. There isn't much time for much else beyond football and family when you are a coach but he has that balance. I know the people in Western Pennsylvania and what they value, I am a Western Pennsylvania guy, and Paul is a great fit there."
Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, who worked with Chryst at Wisconsin, said that Chryst's humility isn't fake, it is just who he is and that's what will be his best attribute when it comes to dealing with players.
"With Paul, what you see is what you get, there is nothing fake and he is always going to be honest," Rudolph said. "He wants to be a great husband, a great friend, a great father and a great coach, and that's what motivates him and he works hard at everything he does. He takes a business-like approach to things, trying to find solutions and answers rather than focusing on problems.
"And he is very good at communicating with players and putting them in positions to succeed."
Chryst is clearly uncomfortable talking about himself and his own accomplishments because he believes that none of it is possible without players, and he would rather let the team's record and statistics speak for themselves.
And he also doesn't want to be defined as just a football coach because he believes that his most important role as is a father and husband, as well as an educator and a mentor to student-athletes.
"At the end of the day the thing that matters most is your family," Chryst said, "and I think that you do have to find that balance between work and family, but I don't think football coaches are unique in that department -- I'm not different than the guys punching a clock and working, we're all looking for balance. I think you can do your job well and take care of your family.
"The key for me is, I try to keep things simple, I don't think you need to make it more complicated than it is and I try not to worry about things I can't control. It is just how I've always done things. I want to be the best at everything I do, but I do believe that a coach's most important job is to help players become the best they can be, and that's really where my focus is."
Chryst's simple and understated approach to life and football means he may be a coach who is always relatively anonymous, and that's OK with him because he is not driven to find the next job, and never has been.
In fact, one of Chryst's mentors and closest friends, Oregon State coach Mike Riley, said he has turned down several opportunities to be a head coach or to get back into the NFL over the past few years because they weren't the right moves for his family and because he values stability and finishing the job he started.
This should be music to the ears of Pitt fans who were jolted when Graham left for Arizona State less than a year after he arrived and who have had to endure a stretch of six coaches since December 2010.
But the other thing that should make Pitt happy is that his teams will always be organized, well-coached and prepared, and that's not something that has always been the case with the Panthers in recent years.
"Paul's work ethic is unbelievable," said Riley, who had Chryst on his staff with the San Diego Chargers and Oregon State. "Some nights he'd stay until 2 a.m. watching film to get prepared for an upcoming opponent, he's ultra-competitive, but you'd never know it because it is all behind the scenes and he'll never talk about it.
"But I can tell you, his attention to detail, his intelligence and understanding about football, his preparation will be second to none, and he will out-coach his opponents almost every week because he prepares so well. He will know everything they are doing, everything they are going to try to do and why and he will have a good plan to counter it and he will push his players to be their best."
Riley said that Chryst "loves life and he loves football" and that he will not be a "CEO coach" who delegates the dirty work but rather be involved in all aspects of game planning and practice planning because he doesn't want to go into a game or a season without being fully prepared.
And he said Chryst's "system" is simple -- figure out what the players can do and put together a scheme that plays to their strengths and hides their weaknesses.
"That's truly the essence of coaching," Riley said. "Everyone in the world has a system, but people actually have to fit into that system and this is what Paul does best -- he will adapt what he wants to do to what his players are capable of doing.
"So players will appear to be playing above their head but in reality it is because Paul and his staff have put them in position to succeed and he will utilize their strengths. That's what makes a great coach."