It’s impossible to say what would have happened to Paul Chryst and Russell Wilson if their paths hadn’t intersected for six months in the fall of 2011 at the University of Wisconsin.
There’s a chance each would still be where he is today: Chryst just having finished his second season as Pitt’s head football coach and Wilson, in just his second year in the NFL, preparing to start Sunday at quarterback for Seattle in the Super Bowl.
It’s also impossible to say, though, that the one season at Wisconsin, with Wilson as quarterback and Chryst as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, didn’t have a indelible impact on both careers.
“We were both good for each other, and he was good for the team,” Chryst said in a phone interview this week. “Everything really fit.”
Wilson’s journey to Wisconsin started with what Chryst described as a “different” recruiting process.
Wilson had just wrapped up the 2010 season at North Carolina State after throwing for 3,663 yards and 28 touchdowns, but had one year of eligibility left.
A dual-sport athlete, he also had been drafted by the Colorado Rockies and wanted to spend the summer pursuing baseball with their Class A team. With four-star quarterback Mike Glennon waiting in the wings with two years of eligibility left, then-Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien decided that if Wilson wasn’t going to fully commit to football, then it was time for the program to move on with Glennon.
“I’m not clairvoyant, I can’t tell the future,” O’Brien said in a conference call with reporters this week, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. “You make decisions based on the facts at that time.
“We had to make a decision that was best for N.C. State.”
Wilson already had earned his undergraduate degree, so, under the NCAA’s graduate-transfer rule, he could go to any other college and be eligible to play immediately. Chryst, meanwhile, was trying to figure out who would fill the void at quarterback for the Badgers left by Scott Tolzien’s graduation.
In May 2011, Chryst visited Wilson’s high school in Richmond, Va., to talk to the quarterback’s high school coach. In early June, Wilson visited Madison for an official visit during a break from his minor league baseball schedule.
“We had him on the visit, and it was really between us and Auburn, and Auburn was just coming off the national championship,” Chryst said. “He had a good visit [at Wisconsin], and I think saw that it could be a good fit for him.”
The Badgers officially announce the addition of Wilson June 27, and by the July 4 weekend he was on campus learning the playbook.
“It’s the first week of camp, and he’s mad at himself if he stumbled on any terminology or anything like that,” Chryst said. “He is special that way.”
Wilson’s teammates didn’t know it, but, as the Badgers began to install their offensive scheme for the 2011 season, Chryst sprinkled in a heavy dose of formations and plays he knew Wilson was comfortable with after studying his North Carolina State tapes. It didn’t take long for Chryst to realize that Wilson and his talent were special.
“I’m the same [idiot] who told him he’d have to come in and compete for the starting job,” he joked. “First day, you’re like, ‘OK we might have one here.’ ”
As Wilson secured his spot on the field, he also began to earn the trust and respect of his new teammates, enough so that they voted him a captain before the 2011 season started.
“That was an authentic thing. That wasn’t manufactured. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey we’ve got to make him feel like he’s part of it.’ He truly became a leader fast.”
Chryst’s coaching and Wilson’s skill set clicked perfectly as Wilson threw for 3,175 yards with 33 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The Badgers went 11-3, losing to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Even though he started receiving some Heisman buzz during the season, Chryst said Wilson always kept a level head.
“It was never about Russell,” Chryst said. “He was all in, as far as the team.”
At Super Bowl media day this week, Wilson called his transfer to Wisconsin “a blessing in disguise.”
While he demonstrated his unquestioned ability as a college quarterback, there were still questions about how Wilson’s 5-foot-11 stature would translate in the pro game. Chryst said he got plenty of questions about Wilson’s height from NFL teams.
“You’re not going to talk someone into it if they’ve got that in their mind, in my opinion,” Chryst said “I felt like his body of work could speak for itself.”
Wilson ended up going to the Seahawks in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft and, to the surprise of most (but not Chryst), won the starting job as a rookie.
“You can only picture Seattle right now because that’s what it was, but I’m not sure there weren’t other places where he could’ve had the same impact,” Chryst said.
Chryst already was a hot name as an assistant coach heading into the 2011 season (he reportedly had an opportunity to be the Texas offensive coordinator), but parlayed that successful year with Wilson into the job at Pitt, where he has gone 13-13 in his first two seasons.
As he settles in to watch one of his former quarterbacks play in the Super Bowl for the first time, Chryst would be the last one to take any credit for what Wilson has accomplished.
That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be special to watch his former protege.
“You hope to have had a positive impact on them and help them grow in their pursuit in this, their career,” Chryst said. “You’re proud that they’re in it. Even watching last week [in the NFC championship game], the whole family kind of cringes on the first play [a Wilson fumble]. It’s a person. It’s someone you’re close to. You want them to do well, and you’re proud of all they did to achieve those milestones.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.