Pitt's Chryst cut from same cloth as father

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 10:57 p.m.

Not long after George Chryst died, his youngest son, Paul, sought comfort from a priest.

The elder Chryst was one of the most beloved figures at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville: father of five, husband, son and a college and high school coach and administrator for three decades.

George Chryst's life was celebrated Friday — on the eve of Father's Day weekend — during daylong ceremonies on the Platteville campus, where officials announced a campaign to name a locker room after him. The elder Chryst died Dec. 3, 1992, at his mother's home in Madison, Wis., days after leading Platteville to its seventh consecutive winning season.

He had been Platteville's football coach since 1979 and athletic director since 1981.

Paul Chryst said his father, then 55, died in his sleep after eating fish and cashews, the oils in the foods causing anaphylactic shock. His sudden death struck hard the close-knit campus community in southwestern Wisconsin.

But when Chryst was asked whether he believed that was a horrible way for his father to die, he said, actually, it wasn't.

“A great way, if you are him,” Chryst, one of three sons and today Pitt's football coach, said recently while reflecting on his father's life and death.

“The priest that came and saw him, I was close with,” Chryst said. “He said, ‘Paul, you need to know, if someone dies of asphyxiation, their fists are clenched because they're grasping. He didn't have that.'

“He died in his sleep at his mom's home. And if you believe in what we believe in, that he's in heaven, he won. It's a hard way to lose someone, but it's a great way to go to heaven. There's no doubt in my mind he's there.”

Teacher first

In many ways, Paul Chryst is like his father, who treated football more as a learning tool than a means for glory or recognition, according to those close to his father.

“He honestly cared more about what he was teaching in terms of life lessons than he was concerned with wins and losses,” former Platteville assistant John Dixon said. “He didn't like to lose at all, but he had a grasp on the big picture.”

Chryst did not play for or coach with his father, but he seldom missed a chance to learn from him. George Chryst used to drive the Platteville quarterbacks to road games in his van, and Paul — only in eighth grade but entrusted to chart plays from the coach's box — rode in the backseat, soaking up the conversation.

Chryst was Platteville's quarterbacks coach the season after his father died and later was Wisconsin's offensive coordinator. He fondly remembers walking into the state's high schools on recruiting visits.

“They would say I am George's kid, and they would talk about who he was as a guy, and I'd walk out of the school and say, ‘I'm not half the guy he was,' ” Chryst said.

He isn't a clone of his father, but their respect for the game and its players is the same.

“That's all that drove him were the players, and that I know I got from him,” he said. “It was just to give the players the best chance. I hold that pretty tight.”

Attracting Bears, Bo

George Chryst was a master salesman, coaxing the Chicago Bears to move their training camp to Platteville's campus in 1984. That same year, he lured Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan from Madison, where he was a Badgers assistant, to Platteville — after offering a $10,000 pay cut.

“I grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania,” Ryan said. “I had never been associated with a small town. He was quite persuasive.”

The bait: Chryst promised to handle Ryan's moving expenses.

The catch: “He didn't say how,” Ryan said.

George sent Paul and his friends to Ryan's house with a van. When Ryan looked out the window, he saw several burly members of Platteville High School's state championship football team flexing their muscles.

“Bo didn't know the moving company was us,” Paul said, laughing at the memory.

Ryan, who won four Division III national championships at Platteville, said his wife lost a lamp shade, and the joke was it ended up on the head of one of the many cows that stood by the highway between Madison and Platteville.

“Nothing was broken,” Paul said. “That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.”

While Ryan's coaches were getting settled in their new jobs, George allowed some of them to live in his basement — Paul's room — while his son was at college.

Ryan, who took Wisconsin to the Final Four this year, hasn't forgotten. When asked to comment for this story, he said: “Anything for George Chryst and Paul Chryst.”

Paul said Ryan and his father were different on many levels but the same in their core values of hard work and loyalty.

Ryan had “that East Coast flash, confidence, swagger,” Paul said. “My dad was more of what you would picture as a Midwest offensive line coach. It was a pretty neat relationship.”

Spray paint in the snow

After George Chryst died, the coaching staff met with the players in the campus dining hall.

“We just decided everybody was going to write down memories,” Dixon said. “This was before everybody had computers. We got napkins and paper plates with some hilarious anecdotes and very meaningful messages from some kids.

“You could really tell how deeply he influenced their lives.”

The night after George's death, his players walked to the stadium and spray-painted in the snow the words “Team,” “Pride,” and “We love you, George.”

“What gets you,” Paul Chryst said, “is the players and what they think of him.”

Ryan and Paul regret that their duties as head coaches prevented them from attending ceremonies in Platteville on Friday. Chryst hosted a prospect camp this weekend, one of the most important on Pitt's recruiting calendar, and Ryan directed a basketball camp in Madison.

“George would be the guy saying, ‘No, no, no. Don't miss that,' ” Ryan said. “ ‘You guys do what you guys do.' ”

Paul said that when he and his brothers, two sisters and their families get together at their cabin in Wisconsin this summer, “We'll pay homage to him.”

Paul's eldest brother, Rick, a former commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, is senior vice president of counsel at Dietz Trott Sports & Entertainment Management in Cleveland. Second-oldest, Geep, is quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Paul is second youngest of five, between sisters Cathy and Dolly.

The idea of having his name attached to the locker room might have embarrassed his father, Paul said.

“It's not the naming, but in his name they are getting together,” he said. “He would think that's pretty cool.”

Chryst admits he probably doesn't talk enough about his father with his children: daughters Katy, 20, and JoJo, 19, who are students at Pitt; and son Danny, 17, a senior at Pine-Richland.

But when asked to name the three people with whom he most would want to have dinner, Chryst said, “I want an extra chair, and I want my three kids and my dad.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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