Badgers football: Paul Chryst works on game plan for communication off the field
Madison.com / August 9, 2015
Paul Chryst was a picture of comfort on the morning of the final day of July, his legs stretched out as he sat in a booth at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago.
The hard part, for all intents and purposes, was over at that point for the University of Wisconsin football coach, who was passing time by chatting with his older brother Rick.
The TV above them was showing Big Ten Media Days coverage on Big Ten Network. On the screen at the time was Nebraska coach Mike Riley, who was at a podium inside a ballroom a short walk from where the Chrysts were seated in the hotel overlooking Lake Michigan.
Paul Chryst wasn’t paying much attention as Riley answered questions during a 15-minute session with reporters from around the conference that essentially served as the opening kickoff of a long day filled with media obligations on several platforms.
A day earlier, it had been Chryst’s turn to meet the press, a grind that began at 11:25 a.m. and didn’t end until he finished an hour-long round-table session at 4:15 p.m. The stretch included, among other items on the itinerary, 15-minute interviews with CBS, ESPN, Fox and BTN.
And, of course, there was the session at the podium, which Chryst began with an opening statement before opening the forum for questions. The first was about the transition to a new coaching job followed by one regarding his decision to retain defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and his 3-4 scheme.
Question No. 3 had nothing to do with football: Where does public speaking rank on the list of things you do or do not like to do so much?
Chryst smiled and paused before delivering some of the self-deprecating humor he’s known to display.
“Does that (question) reflect what I’ve done already at this point?” Chryst said, an answer that produced some laughs.
Chryst then turned serious. “I enjoy talking about Wisconsin football and the university, and I love talking about our players,” he said. “And it comes in different ways and different forms. But I love this program. And I love the guys.”
More at ease
Chryst gets another opportunity on the stage — albeit a much smaller one — today when the Badgers host their local media at Camp Randall Stadium on the eve of the start of training camp.
While he’s most comfortable with a play sheet in his hands or analyzing game and practice video in a meeting room, Chryst understands that being the head coach of a major college program is about much more than Xs and Os.
No one understands that better than UW athletic director Barry Alvarez, who hired Chryst last December after Gary Andersen bolted for Oregon State.
“That’s what I think some people probably don’t understand: In this business, you can be the greatest assistant in the world, but when you’re the head coach, you have to represent, you have to sell to the alums,” Alvarez said. “You represent that program all the time and you’re on stage and you have to be in front of people and you have to be able to tell your story and you have to be able to sell it and keep people interested.”
Alvarez sees a different Paul Chryst than the guy he hired as an assistant in 2002. Chryst spent two stints on UW’s staff, including a run as the program’s offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2011 before he was hired to be the head coach at Pittsburgh.
“When he coached for me (then), there was no doubt in my mind Paul would rather be in the film room,” Alvarez said. “He probably still would be now — he loves the film room — but when I’m around him it appears to me he feels very at ease.
“I think Paul has really embraced things that you need to do to be a head coach other than football.”
Asking for help
Yet, Chryst would be the first to admit that communication — particularly in a public forum — isn’t one of his strengths.
What does a quarterback do when he’s struggling in a particular area? He seeks out a coach for help. Ditto for Chryst, who worked with media specialist Kevin Sullivan this spring for tips.
Brian Lucas, UW’s director of athletic communications, said Chryst was receptive when the idea of bringing in an outsider for assistance was broached.
“I talked to him about it probably in February after signing day and just said, ‘I think there are some areas we can get better at,’ ” Lucas said.
“And his response was great: ‘We ask our players to try and get better all the time and this is an area that if you think I can improve, then it wouldn’t be right of me to say, no, I’m not going to do this.’ ”
Sullivan, who runs a strategic communications firm based on the East Coast, has an impressive resume that includes a stop at the White House, where he served as the communications director under President George W. Bush.
Sullivan also has a background in sports: He worked as an undergraduate in Purdue’s sports information department and later served as the vice president in charge of communications for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.
Lucas said Sullivan spent an afternoon in Madison giving Chryst some pointers. Before he arrived, Sullivan had watched a replay of Chryst’s opening news conference at UW in addition to post-practice interview footage and material from a charity event during Chryst’s time at Pittsburgh.
According to Lucas, Sullivan stressed the importance of preparation before interviews.
“Having some sort of plan as opposed to just going up and trying to wing it,” Lucas said. “It’s like anything else — you just collect your thoughts a little bit, have a plan going in and execute it.”
Chryst said he appreciated his time with Sullivan and learned a lot from the session. He knows it’s an area in which he needs to improve.
“Just like our team, you know what, we’re not where we want to be but we’re going to keep working and we’re going to get there,” Chryst said. “And I hope you never lose that. The moment you think you’ve arrived, I think you’ve gone backwards.
“And I think it’d be pretty hypocritical if I’m asking my players everything they do to get better at and if I’m not trying with everything I do to try to get better at it.”
‘In this business, you can be the greatest assistant in the world, but when you’re the head coach ... You represent that program all the time.’ BARRY ALVAREZ