Chryst, Franklin and Holgorsen bring unique styles to Pitt, PSU and WVU
The Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia football programs are rooted in three markedly different locales and play in three separate conferences, with distinct backgrounds and traditions.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the three coaches have sharply contrasting personalities, from Paul Chryst's easygoing, everyman nature at Pitt to James Franklin's maniacal energy at Penn State to Dana Holgorsen quirky, mad-scientist tendencies at West Virginia.
Each man has a resume dotted with success and, to varying degrees, laudable accomplishments in a relatively short time at his school.
With the Panthers about to embark on Chryst's third season, Franklin holding the Nittany Lions job for just seven months and Holgorsen hoping to stop a pattern of a three-win drop-off following each of his first two seasons in Morgantown, W.Va., here are separate looks at the approach each man takes.
Laid-back Chryst content in routine guiding Pitt
Pitt safety Ray Vinopal watches in bemusement and admiration anytime Chryst is asked to interrupt his routine.
“When he has to put on a shirt and tie and go to speak somewhere,” Vinopal said, “E.J. (Borghetti, Pitt's publicist) has to pull teeth. It's cool seeing that because (Chryst) would really rather be with us.”
Chryst will open training camp Sunday doing what he does best: interacting with players.
When asked to describe his coaching style, Chryst wrinkled his face into a scowl and rolled his eyes. “You don't spend time thinking of your style,” he said.
Prodded, he continued.
“I believe in the game and the values of the game,” said Chryst, the son of a coach. “Clearly I know this about me: I am motivated by and energized by the players.
“That's why we do it. I think you are a better coach if you know your players better. If you are a coach with no players, it's really not a great job.”
Vinopal, a senior who transferred from Michigan in 2011, serves as a connecting cable between the locker room and coaches.
“If I have a problem or concern or hear something in the locker room that people want changed,” he said, “I just walk right upstairs into his office, and he drops whatever he's doing to listen to what I have to say.
“A lot of head coaches aren't like that. A lot of head coaches are hard to approach, hard to talk to.”
Before he was hired at Pitt, Chryst worked at five schools and for four professional teams. His oldest brother, Rick, an attorney and the former commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, said networking — always looking for a better job — “isn't part of his DNA.”
Former Texas coach Mack Brown considered Chryst for his offensive coordinator's job, even sending his private airplane to fetch him for an interview. But Chryst was more comfortable the next year talking to Pitt.
“No doubt, Pitt was the best fit for him,” Rick Chryst said.
When Chryst was tight ends coach of the San Diego Chargers from 1999-2001, his brother Geep was the team's quarterbacks coach.
“He really worked hard to understand the game, to understand what all 22 players were doing,” said Geep, now the quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49ers. “He has a real good eye, and during the course of the week, he does a real good job of building a game plan.”
Chryst first started calling plays for Platteville (Wis.) High School, but he wasn't a coach there. He was a quarterback.
In the first game of his senior season in 1983, Chryst suffered a deep thigh bruise that doctors said could end his season.
Wanting to stay involved, he threw every day at practice and convinced coach Mark Berg to let him call plays. Chryst was so good at it that Berg told reporters his 17-year-old play-caller “might know more than me.”
The words were said in jest, but Chryst's replacement — and best friend — Jace Martens said, “The first couple touchdowns I scored were his calls.”
Chryst recovered, returned in time to lead Platteville to a state championship — he threw for 350 yards in the title game — and was named to the all-state team.
“He joked he was the only all-state quarterback who didn't make all-conference,” Geep said. Martens was named all-conference, but he played only because Chryst talked him into it.
Chryst was one of the best athletes at Platteville. “He was an unbelievable basketball player. He owned the glass,” Martens said.
But Martens remembers him more as a “big brother who pointed me in the right direction and took me under his wing.”
When Chryst's father, George, died, Martens said he called Chryst at his wife, Robin's, home.
“I cried,” Martens said, “and it was like he was consoling me the whole time we talked.”
Franklin's boundless energy ‘not a facade'
Franklin has been known to convene morning staff meetings by demonstratively slamming the table with open palms.
It's not uncommon for him to greet a player with an even more jarring greeting.
“He'll walk by you and, all of a sudden, just smack you right in the chest,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “And you're just like, ‘Oh my God, what just happened?'
“But it's all fun and games. That's why guys like him and respect him — because he's just one of the guys.”
Be it on the practice field, in the team meeting room, in a recruit's living room or just chatting with the media, Franklin seemingly always is “on.” He publicly has vowed to swear off sleep if that's what it takes to get the Nittany Lions where he wants to take them. But it doesn't take long to see there's little leisurely or laid back about his waking hours.
“Franklin, quite simply, is full of energy,” cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said. “It's hard to imagine a guy having so much energy every day, but that's who he is. It's not a facade.”
At Big Ten media days, Franklin periodically would shout across a crowded ballroom to running back Bill Belton, prodding him to smile. The normally stoic Belton routinely responded by failing to suppress one.
Almost unfailingly, Franklin's sessions with media end with a good-natured wisecrack directed at a journalist as he walks off the podium or away from a table, whisking off to the day's next task.
Once, during an interview in his office, Franklin politely excused himself after being summoned for a phone call. He gently closed the door behind him, and seconds later, a demonstrative greeting that included, “Coop Dog!” was screamed loud enough it could be heard through the Lasch Building's walls.
“I think there's things he does just to release energy,” Belton said. “He does it to get people fired up, too. Everyone loves it.”
University Park isn't the first place Franklin's persona became infectious. He became something of a campus rock star in Nashville, Tenn., after transforming long-moribund Vanderbilt into an SEC contender.
“You can see he wears his emotions on him,” said Commodores baseball coach Tim Corbin, whose team won the College World Series in June.
Corbin, Franklin and their wives became close during the three years Franklin spent at Vanderbilt.
“He's just emotionally engaged in everything he does,” Corbin said. “It doesn't matter what it is — he doesn't get involved in anything that he's not passionate about. If he's not passionate about it, he's not going to get involved. Period.”
He has been like that for more than two decades, Franklin's college coach said. Franklin was a record-setting quarterback and, later, a graduate assistant under Dennis Douds at East Stroudsburg.
“He always had great enthusiasm and great passion for what he was doing,” Douds said. “He's always been able to communicate with people and communicate with a diverse population: young, old, male, female, if you came from the East or the West. … And he'd do it with passion and enthusiasm. That's one of those mixes that you don't see too often in one guy.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said Franklin recognizes his highly caffeinated personality might, at times, be too much for some to handle and sometimes needs to be reined in.
That recognition is shown, in part, with whom Franklin surrounds himself.
“One of his strengths is he has so much passion, so much energy, so much enthusiasm and is very sincere,” Shoop said. “He's today's perfect coach.
“But what he's done a really good job at is assembling a staff that complements him. Between me and (offensive coordinator) John Donovan, we're probably more Paul Chrysts than we are James Franklins in a lot of ways. But that complements James well, and he makes it work.”
Holgorsen takes ‘offbeat approach to things'
With salaries to match, many of today's big-time college coaches resemble corporate CEOs.
“That's not his deal,” said one of his mentors, Washington State coach Mike Leach. “In this business, there's a lot of people who are all football. He's all football, too, but Dana has kind of a little offbeat approach to things.”
Holgorsen is not easy to pin down. He has been described as laid back and ultra intense, fun loving and a workaholic. After getting the WVU job in 2011, he went skydiving. He described the experience as “very calm,” a marked departure for someone who claims to start the day with coffee before moving to Red Bull.
One of the few unmarried Division I head coaches (he is divorced), Holgorsen has been known to enjoy casinos and the occasional adult beverage, sometimes simultaneously. Three years ago, he was booted from a casino at 3 a.m. for unruly behavior. As offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State before coming to WVU, Holgorsen lived in a hotel and wore sandals and flip-flops to work.
With his high forehead, thinning, stringy hair and nonchalant fashion sense, he resembles a young Stephen Stills, the legendary rocker. Leach described Holgorsen's approach to his players as “not pretentious” and “understated.”
“There's always a distance between players and coaches, and I think it gets widened out if you get too formal and constipated,” said Leach, who himself is anything but formal. “Naturally, he has a good relationship with his players, and some of that doesn't involve overdressing on his part.”
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told The Oklahoman in 2012, “Our personalities are much different. I'm very Type A, structured, organized. I feel guilty if I don't show up early and stay late.”
Holgorsen does stay late.
“He had his own way he liked to do things,” Gundy said. “And so what I tried to do was just stay out of his way and let him do his job. ... He goes against a lot of things, and that's OK.”
“You never knew what you were going to get,” former Cowboys receiver Charlie Moore told The Oklahoman, referring to Holgorsen. “From the Red Bull cans all over the field to the funny choice of language to the stories that you don't even know about him but you hear to the pulling the hair, throwing the headsets ...
“But overall, Coach Holgorsen was a good guy.”