Hierarchical models of power are inescapable, no matter where we look in our society today. This is no different in sports. Unfortunately, many sport hierarchies do not give much, if any, power to those other than the highest entities.
From Big Ten Commissioner all the way to practice squad waterboy, power is unevenly distributed. While one may think a head coach like Paul Chryst calls a lot of shots, one of the powers he does not hold is to call shots about his own job security.
As the news of Chryst’s firing broke less than 24 hours after Wisconsin’s 34-10 loss to Illinois, Badger fans were sent into a whirl of emotional outpour. Among the most common reactions were confusion, shock, celebration, hope and even excitement for interim head coach Jim Leonhard.
Even though the decision to fire a long-tenured head coach in the middle of a season is undoubtedly shocking and risky, I too felt relief and hope for the future of the Badger program after hearing the news. But, as others displayed more extreme verbal reactions — as sports fans so affectionately do — I could not avoid feeling sympathy for Chryst ever since the news broke.
Honestly, I am shocked at the lack of appreciation for Chryst for basic sports fandom reasons. Not many other programs can claim a 67-26 coach over just a seven year tenure, including a 6-1 bowl game record and multiple New Year’s Six bowl game appearances.
He was known for his “smash mouth football” philosophy, with Jonathan Taylor as just one of many outstanding players among the plethora of elite run-heavy offenses unique to 2010s Badger football. His individual player development was also top tier, as he helped produce 18 All-Americans and over 30 NFL Draft picks.
However, there are many other aspects to this firing that should be considered before we write Chryst off as a failure at the end of his tenure. Just like the rest of us, he did his job because he enjoyed it, and he built his career around the opportunities he received at Wisconsin.
These opportunities began back in his childhood. He was born in Madison and raised not far from campus. He graduated from UW-Madison in 1988 with a political science degree, while also earning 2 varsity letters as a quarterback, tight end and special teams player for the Badgers. These are the types of experiences that we, as fans of the team, often glance over.
When someone like Chryst grows up a fan of a certain program, and eventually ends up playing and coaching them, there is no stronger bond possible between person and program. Chryst is the perfect example of this developed passion for a program.
When I think about a team firing a head coach, I don’t often feel sympathy like I have for Chryst. However, not many other coaches have such deep roots in a team they coach, especially when the team essentially built their career.
At the end of the day, this man, proud of his history with the program and the legacy he built, lost his job. Sure, he’s getting $11 million in contract buyout money, but, if you truly love your job, money isn’t everything. With the legacy and history that Chryst leaves behind, I can only assume he loved his job for more than just the head coach’s salary.
While change is coming quickly to the Badger program, and we will soon find out if Jim Leonhard is the right solution in this shaky season, there needs to be time and thought dedicated to the coach that has departed. His legacy, his roots with the university and the program and his continuous dedication to producing years of outstanding Badger football should not go unappreciated.
So, as we celebrate the quick-fire decision made by the UW Athletics department, remember to think humanely about the impacts this decision will have on a man’s life and not just about success on a football field.