The moment the unexpected news broke Tuesday that Bret Bielema was leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas, speculation over the Badgers' next coach quickly turned to one obvious candidate: Pitt's Paul Chryst.
Chryst grew up in Madison, was son of a Wisconsin high school and small-college coach, played quarterback at UW and most recently was a dynamic offensive coordinator for the program. He left last season for Pitt. Now, with one year of head-coaching experience, he was – at least for some Badger fans – a preferable head man to even Bielema, who merely led the program to three consecutive Big Ten championships.
Yet Chryst isn't a candidate for a reason that's both surprising and refreshing considering the cutthroat state of college football.
"I wouldn't feel right [about trying to hire him]," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said Thursday morning.
Wouldn't feel right? How often does that get said – let alone thought – in college football these days?
Alvarez's reasoning is old-school sound, of course. In general, there ought to be a thing called "loyalty." All the jumping around that goes on today, despite long-term contracts and public pronouncements to the contrary, is dizzying.
It's not that people shouldn't change jobs. Of course, they should. But it could be done a little more reasonably.
Enter Alvarez. Chryst not only just took over Pitt's program, but it was Alvarez, a native of Western Pennsylvania himself, who played a key role in making it happen. So now Alvarez is going to hurt the school that listened to him a year ago?
"I wouldn't think it would be right for him to leave after one year," Alvarez said. "I wouldn't feel right, and I don't think it would be appropriate for me to hire him back after I asked someone to do me a favor and help him get that job.
"So Paul's going to stay at Pitt."
In a nutshell, this is Big Ten football.
Not completely, of course. There are schools in the league that would've had Chryst on the first flight to Wisconsin without even considering it unethical. And it's not that there aren't schools and people in other conferences, including even the ultra-competitive SEC, that wouldn't do the same.
In general, though, that's the basic mentality of the league, of the region, of the people. Loyalty matters. Appropriateness matters. Your word matters. If you were going to pick one major conference where the most obvious and perhaps qualified candidate was going to be passed over based on principle, then the Big Ten would've been it.
There was a time when the coaching carousel was different. There are fewer openings because there were fewer firings. And coaches were less likely to hint interest in a job simply to leverage a raise. In addition, a school, out of respect, would contact an athletic director and ask permission to speak to their coach. It still happens, but it's becoming the exception.
Arkansas, for its part, never bothered to call Alvarez about interviewing Bielema. The Razorbacks contacted the coach directly following Saturday night's Big Ten championship game and had him hired within 60 hours or so.
The Razorbacks did nothing wrong in getting their man, and Alvarez essentially agreed. It's the sign of the times, he said.
But that doesn't mean Wisconsin is changing with the times.
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane and the Central Florida Knights battled for the Conference USA championship last Saturday,
UCF appeared to be in control late in the fourth quarter when Tulsa used a wild play to tie the game before eventually winning 33-27 in overtime.
With 5:25 remaining in the game, UCF held a 27-21 lead and lined up to punt. Punter Jamie Boyle took the snap in his own end zone and booted the ball to the 50. Tulsa returner Trey Watts watched the ball take a great Golden Hurricane bounce. Knights defensive back Kemal Ishmael leaped and slapped the ball back to the Tulsa 45, and UCF players proceeded to walk off the field. Watts immediately stunned everyone by running to grab the live ball and taking it up the sideline untouched for a game-tying score.
Although the play was followed by a blocked extra point to leave the game tied at 27-27, Tulsa scored a touchdown in overtime to become Conference USA champion.
– Mike Patton
At so many other top places, the goal is to simply get the best coach and don't waste a moment worrying about how it got done. This is big business: Why limit your chances at success because of some unwritten code? Pining for the old days is simply naïve and puts the school at a disadvantage.
Neither side of this is right. Neither side is wrong. It's just kind of cool that college sports remain diverse enough there are still two sides.
You can certainly stand and applaud Alvarez for showing restraint, for acting on a core principle even when the chips are on the table. That's walking the walk.
You can also mock him for being stuck in a world that's passed. You can even claim he's doing some disservice to UW by allowing personal feelings and side friendships to impact his candidate pool.
It's all how you want to look at it.
Many Wisconsin fans would counter that trusting in values is exactly how a university should behave. Besides, Barry Alvarez has never lacked confidence and he's 100 percent certain he'll wind up with a coach who will continue the Badgers' winning ways. Alvarez himself will return to the sideline to coach Wisconsin in the upcoming Rose Bowl.
As for a full-time guy, he said he might hire someone next week. He didn't look nervous.
"I'm not in a rush,” he said.
Now, it's worth noting there is no guarantee Chryst would have come. He's expressed great appreciation for his current job at Pitt and the momentum he's building as the Panthers head to the ACC. However, in the pecking order of football, the Badgers job is considered a richer and superior one, especially for the hometown alum.
That's why the move seemed inevitable. Why not?
Well, it turns out Barry Alvarez had a big reason why not. If some people mock his 1950s thinking, or shake their head at a program and a league, that seem slow to adapt, they should know this.
Wisconsin is going to do things its way.
"I like our program," Alvarez said.
That's what's most important to him. And that's something that should never require an apology.
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