College football, in search of itself

  Wisconsin’s dumbfounding firing of Paul Chryst the other day took me back to a day in Madison 44 years ago. I stood on the sideline at Camp Randall Stadium and in the last five minutes, watched an Oregon team in the second season of Rich Brooks’ stewardship burp up a double-digit lead and lose to Wisconsin, 22-19.

  That day, the Badgers were hardly the Badgers we know now. They had had 13 losing seasons in their previous 14.

  Over time, of course, things changed. Mostly because Barry Alvarez came in and slapped the Badgers into relevance. For a time, Wisconsin was going to the Rose Bowl more than any program in the Big Ten, and when it got there, it won.

  A decade after Alvarez was done, Chryst came along. He was a Wisconsin alum (he’d also done a two-year stint as an offensive coordinator for Mike Riley at Oregon State).

  Today, the inevitable conclusion is that Wisconsin decided Chryst is no Barry Alvarez, because it canned him on the first Sunday of October.

  No doubt, Chryst’s multi-faceted sins this season describe neatly how he got cornered:

  His team lost as a big favorite to Washington State and Jake Dickert, a Wisconsin boy come home to make good. His team lost 52-21 at Ohio State, underscoring what seemed to be an expanding gap between the superpowers and the aspirant Badgers. Then his team lost to Illinois and Bret Bielema, who returned to his former employers and whomped them.

  It wasn’t a good look. Wisconsin is 2-3 and headed nowhere good this year. But big picture, the move is staggering, maybe as startling a firing as college football has seen in a while, absent misdoing off the field.

  In four of his first five years in Madison, Chryst won 10 games or more – including 13 in 2017. He won 10 again three years ago. Then the Badgers went 4-3 in the fits-and-starts pandemic season, returned to 9-4 last year and stumbled out of the gate in 2022. Poof.

  Increasingly, I’m finding a hard time recognizing college football. In-season firings were unheard-of not very long ago, but Chryst became No. 5 in 2022 when Wisconsin pulled the plug, beaten for No. 4 by a few hours when Colorado pink-slipped Karl Dorrell. We aren’t at the midpoint of the season yet.

  It’s not the name-image-likeness phenomenon that’s causing the vertigo. NIL is a good thing, it’s just that it’s been an earthquake with a where’s-this-thing-going element that would have been mitigated with a little foresight from Mark Emmert and the NCAA.

  Chryst went 67-26 at Wisconsin. Those buying into the firing say recruiting had stalled and he hadn’t found footing with the transfer portal and there was a promising assistant, Jim Leonhard, in the wings.

  And yeah, Chryst looked frumpy on the sidelines and in an era where college football is in search of itself, by golly, you can’t look frumpy.

  This is a sport that eviscerated one of its grandest traditions, the Rose Bowl, so it could accommodate a punchless, four-team playoff that, thank heaven, will finally give way to something meatier. Meanwhile, soon we’ll have USC and UCLA athletes chartering five hours to renew those time-honored relations with Purdue and Maryland. That will affect all sports, but we know this is really all about football and television.

  As for salaries now, if you think they’re bananas, take a look at buyouts. Chryst’s was $16 million, negotiated down to $11 million, and that’s nowhere near the sport’s most exorbitant.

  Somebody wrote the other day that schools are printing money, courtesy of TV contracts. I don’t know if that’s the case, but there’s a lot of stupid spending, a race to keep up with the Joneses, runaway debt in some precincts, and an ever-growing tendency to lean on boosters when the coach has run his course. Naturally, it’s those boosters who decide when that is.

  Back to Rich Brooks. Oregon’s major-sports head coaches were making about $25,000 in the early ‘70s, so I’m guessing he was pulling down maybe $35,000 annually when his team made that stop in Madison in ’78.

  Brooks’ teams, by the way, had losing seasons in seven of his first 10. He didn’t get a team to a bowl game until 12 years into his tenure, yet Oregon stuck with him

That’s excessive, you say. Some would say firing a coach who just went 67-26 is, too.