In December 2011, Tony Granato received a phone call. An old friend from college had gotten a new job and was moving into town, and Granato was supposed to help him find a place to live.
It was a normal story, except for a few details; Granato was an assistant coach for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and his old friend was Paul Chryst, who had just been named the newest head football coach at Pittsburgh.
Granato hadn’t interacted with Chryst much since they had overlapped as athletes at Wisconsin from 1986 to 1988. Granato was a forward on the hockey team and Chryst a tight end and quarterback on the gridiron. Granato jumped into his task immediately by helping find a house for Chryst, his wife Robin and their three children.
Granato’s initial hospitality jump-started a relationship between the two coaches that’s lasted seven years and transplanted 500 miles west. It’s indicative of what Chryst says makes the men’s hockey head coach stand out among his peers.
“That’s just a little example of Tony; he’ll do that for any number of people, and it’s just because he wants to make you feel welcome,” Chryst said. “If there’s a chance he can make you feel welcome, if he can help you or your family in anything, he’ll do that. It meant a ton for me, not because of what it allowed me to do [as a coach] but because it showed how much he cares.”
The two coaches became quick friends during their time in Pittsburgh, often attending each other’s practices and texting nearly daily with coaching questions and ideas.
“When we got to Pitt is when the friendship really started to grow,” Granato said. “We were able to spend a lot more time together there than we’re even able to here.”
When either of them talk about their relationship, it’s impossible to distinguish the personal from the professional. Their on-field and on-ice trust stems from mutual respect and appreciation.
“I’ve always admired Tony,” Chryst said. “When you spend time with him, he’s so generous with his time and thoughts.”
The duo were split up just under three years later in July of 2014 when Granato went from the Penguins to the Detroit Red Wings, but both coaches quickly found their way back to Madison and the Badgers. First, Chryst was hired to replace Gary Andersen after the 2014 season. Then, Granato took over for legendary coach Mike Eaves in spring of 2016.
Since reuniting in Madison, the two have worked hard to carve out time in their busy schedules despite being on opposite ends of campus — Granato sequestered in the Kohl Center, Chryst in Camp Randall. But, the situation has brought new opportunities for Granato to implement lessons learned from Chryst into his own coaching. The former NHL standout now brings his entire coaching staff to at least one Wisconsin football practice a week and often appears at football events.
“His philosophy and his relationships with his players is what makes him different from anyone else, and that’s what I want our staff to see and to take away,” Granato said. “I want our staff to have those kinds of relationships with our players.”
Granato and Chryst took very different career paths between leaving Madison in the late ‘80s and arriving in Pittsburgh more than 25 years later — Granato played 14 years in the NHL before transitioning into professional coaching, while Chryst started coaching immediately, bouncing around the NCAA and the pro ranks after starting as a graduate assistant at West Virginia. Despite this, both coaches have relied on each other as valuable sources of advice and guidance in their own realms.
The coaches insist that their sports have more in common than it appears, with many of their conversations centering around universal issues like handling star players, negotiating academic eligibility and recruiting.
Granato has leaned particularly hard on lessons learned from Chryst this season with a young squad that has 29 of its 34 games against preseason top-20 teams. Facing such a tough schedule, the head coach has drawn from what he learned watching the 2016 Wisconsin football team, which faced five top-10 teams in its first eight games.
“The year they started with LSU, I thought the staff did a great job each and every week of keeping the players focused on the next challenge … I just remember after each win they’d say, ‘We’re proud of the guys,’ and then get ready for the next one,” Granato said. “We have the same makeup and the same mentality and so the most important thing for us is to make sure we have the same mindset of going into the weekend embracing the challenge.”
Chryst — who became the third Big Ten coach in history to win 40 of his first 50 games — has faced relatively few issues in his first two and a half years with the Badgers. But the next time he runs into some, it’s a safe bet who he’ll go to for advice.
“He may say that he’s picked up one or two things from me, but I’ve learned a lot more from him than I’ve given him, that’s for sure."