Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst was only half-joking at Big Ten Media Days this summer, when he started bristling at all the questions about Nebraska coach Mike Riley.
“He gets more press than the Kardashians; what the heck is this?” Chryst finally said, hoping to steer the conversation back toward the Badgers.
Upon hearing this, Riley could only smile. Pop culture isn’t his good friend’s strong suit.
“Does he even know who the Kardashians are?” Riley said.
Chryst and Riley are football junkies, which is what first drew them together 24 years ago with the San Antonio Riders of the World League of American Football.
They’ve spent nine years coaching together at various stops, and now they’ve taken over the two most nationally prominent programs in the Big Ten West. The friendship could get tested immediately, with many analysts pegging the division as a three-team race among Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota.
The Badgers are the defending West champions, with Joel Stave back at quarterback and standout Corey Clement ready to replace Melvin Gordon as the team’s No. 1 tailback. Riley inherits more questions in Lincoln, as the Cornhuskers have no obvious replacement for running back Ameer Abdullah and will need better results from junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Wisconsin went 11-3 last year but suffered a 59-0 beatdown to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. When coach Gary Andersen abruptly left for Oregon State, Badgers fans rejoiced at the hiring of Chryst, who had been a successful offensive coordinator under Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema before leaving to become the head coach at Pittsburgh.
The chain of events that led Chryst, 49, back to Wisconsin actually started at Nebraska, when the Cornhuskers fired Bo Pelini following a seventh consecutive season of four losses. To fill that job, Nebraska went outside-the-box, plucking Riley from Oregon State.
Riley, 62, is entering his 24th season as a head coach. He went 93-80 at Oregon State, with only one season (2006) with more than nine victories.
Riley has a connection to Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst in Chryst. When Eichorst was a senior associate AD at Wisconsin in 2006-07, Chryst was the Badgers’ offensive coordinator.
“Paul had worked for Shawn and told me he was really good,” Riley said. “I had some inside scoop before any of this started.”
So now they’re stuck competing against each other, along with fifth-year Gophers coach Jerry Kill, whose team went 5-3 in the Big Ten last year. Minnesota has two consecutive victories over Nebraska but has dropped 11 in a row against Wisconsin.
Riley and Chryst will build a rivalry on top of a friendship that dates to February 1991. Chryst was 25, living back home in Platteville, Wis. He had played three years for the Badgers and spent two years as a graduate assistant at West Virginia.
“It was snowing in Wisconsin, and I had no job, so the career was going really well for me,” Chryst deadpanned.
With few other coaching prospects, Chryst and his brother, Geep, drove 1,300 miles to Orlando, for the World League’s inaugural draft. Geep landed a job as the receivers coach for the Orlando Thunder, but his brother came up empty.
Two weeks later, Chryst was back in Platteville, shoveling snow, when his father came outside to tell him he had a phone call. It was Riley, head coach of the San Antonio Riders, with an offer to be an offensive assistant coach.
“It was huge,” Chryst said. “I think from that job on, Mike was a factor in every job that I got.”
Riley, then 37, had won two Grey Cups in four years as coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League. He spent two seasons with San Antonio, facing the likes of Frankfurt, London and Barcelona, while working closely with Chryst.
“Paul and I — we’d practice in the morning, and we’d go for a run,” Riley said. “We’d come back, get the popcorn going, and then we’d come back and watch film all afternoon. It was a great life.”
Riley had a defensive background, so he and Chryst essentially built San Antonio’s pro-style offense from scratch.
Chryst later served two stints as Riley’s offensive coordinator at Oregon State. When the San Diego Chargers hired Riley as their head coach, he hired Chryst to coach the tight ends.
Even when they weren’t coaching together, Riley and Chryst would get together each offseason in San Antonio, where Riley kept a house, and spend a few days breaking down film.
“You’re talking about two great football coaches as well as two great human beings,” said John Peterson, the former Bemidji State coach who served as the San Antonio Riders general manager. “It’s going to be fun to watch those two compete in the Big Ten.”