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A Coach’s Coach

Posted May 26, 2011

Geep Chryst has been friends with the Harbaugh family for more than two decades. He once coached Jim in the NFL. Now he calls his old friend “boss." And for the first time ever, the two will work together on a coaching staff this season with the San Francisco 49ers.

JUST LIKE the Harbaughs, the Chrysts have always been a football family. Family patriarch, George Chryst, coached 30 years in Wisconsin, mostly as the athletic director and football coach at Wisconsin-Platteville. He passed away at the age of 55. But his teaching legacy lives on through his sons, who carry their father’s passion for the game of football. Two have coached in the college and professional ranks for more than two decades. Currently, Paul Chryst serves as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the University of Wisconsin – Geep Chryst, as the quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

It should come as no surprise that football families like the Chrysts and Harbaughs became competitive allies. Fathers George and Jack coached against each other for many years in the Big Ten Conference.  A mutual respect was formed there, one that would trickle down to their sons, who first crossed paths on the Platteville campus in 1987. Chryst, who broke into coaching working for his father, also pursued coaching opportunities with the Chicago Bears, who were in town for training camp. Harbaugh on the other hand, was simply in town as the team’s first-round draft pick.

“Like Jim, I came from a coaching family," explains Chryst on a cool May afternoon in the offseason at 49ers headquarters. “Our fathers knew each other. And once I was done with college, since I didn’t play for my dad, I wanted to coach with my dad. That was at Wisconsin-Platteville where the Bears trained. So I have the distinction on the coaching staff of knowing Jim the longest.”

GROWING UP, Chryst played multiple sports, however, his future was primarily in football and baseball. He attended Princeton to play both, with his experience on the football team being most unique. Chryst played quarterback to start his collegiate career and moved to defense so he could help his team where they needed bodies most. “They said they needed help defensively, so I played outside linebacker,” recalls Chryst. “And as I joked, ‘They still needed help when I was on defense.’”

A modest Chryst always felt he’d make a good coach if his playing career didn’t pan out. After all, it was in his bloodline. So when Chryst’s playing days came to an end, he began a lengthy coaching career by working for his father in 1987, before moving on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison the following season. There, it took a unique circumstance for Chryst to venture out of the Midwest. When an opportunity came for Chryst to coach at the University of Wyoming, the self-described “Cheesehead,” jumped at the chance and moved to Wyoming where he coached offensive linemen. If not for Chryst’s friend who wrote computer software for the Wyoming program, Chryst may have never made the move. But once he visited the campus, Chryst found himself in the middle of the Rocky Mountains coaching linemen in 1989 and quarterbacks the following season.

Looking back on the move, it’s funny how everything worked out for the Chrysts. At Wyoming, Geep worked for Paul Roach, the same coach who created a job vacancy for his father George, when he left Wisconsin’s staff to join Bart Starr’s staff with the Green Bay Packers. “It seems like football is a small world,” says Geep looking back on the circumstance. At Wyoming, Geep thrived in the various roles that were put on his plate. He coached offensive linemen, but enjoyed greater responsibilities, even some play-calling duties. It molded him for future opportunities like his big break with the Bears.

EXPERIENCE AND proximity enabled Chryst to catch on as Chicago’s director of research and quality control in 1991. Though Chryst held the title for five seasons, he actually began helping the team first in ’87 by taking care of “various capacities.” Despite being exposed to NFL practices and coaching techniques, Chryst remained eager to get more experience under his belt. Following his two-year stint at Wyoming, he drove to Orlando along with his brother Paul to look for other coaching jobs at the now defunct World League’s Draft. “It turned out to be a great break,” Geep says of the trip.

At the event, the Chryst brothers forged a friendship with current Oregon State head coach Mike Riley. Geep began a unique relationship with the World League’s Orlando Thunder too. Because of the trip, Geep was offered a coaching position as Orlando’s wide receivers and running backs coach. He coached the Thunder in the spring and was hired by the Bears in the fall of ‘91. The following season, Chryst received a call from the Thunder in what he thought would be a request for his coaching services, instead, the Thunder needed a long snapper for the playoffs.

“After years of not having pads on it was a lot of fun,” recalls Chryst of the experience. “We ended up making the playoffs and going to the World Bowl. But I remember grabbing Jim and having him throw me a few passes because that was the first time in a while I had a helmet and shoulder pads on.”

POISE UNDER pressure is what Chryst recalled most vividly of his current boss. Though he had held out of camp for a short period, Harbaugh came to the Chicago Bears full of confidence. Chryst recalls Harbaugh nearly crashing his moped into William “The Refrigerator” Perry’s gold Mercedes. But the rookie quarterback made up for it when he displayed veteran moxie at the team’s rookie talent show. When his partner bowed out of their scheduled embarrassing performance, Harbaugh was left to entertain the veterans all by himself. “You could tell Jim had a lot of poise just how much he loved football from the get-go,” says Chryst of the rookie’s performance in a Blues Brothers skit.

On the practice field, Chryst immediately gravitated to Harbaugh’s demeanor, an attitude that Harbaugh has carried throughout his football career. “He was very passionate – he competed on the practice fields,” says Chryst. “But at the end of the day, once he crossed the lines on Sunday – it was all business. I think Jim is a great head coach because he’s getting ready for the game just like when he was playing.”

HE OFTEN marveled over Harbaugh’s preparation when the two reunited for the 1999 and 2000 NFL seasons in San Diego. Harbaugh was in the final two years of his playing career while Chryst was in the first of his two seasons coaching the Chargers. On Mike Riley’s staff, who he met at that fateful World League Draft, Chryst was San Diego’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In addition, Chryst was responsible for getting the most of his close friend and eventual boss.

That season, Harbaugh totaled his second-highest passing output of his 15-year career, throwing for 2,761 passing yards. But soon after, it became clear to both men that Harbaugh’s career was winding down. Chryst figured it was only a matter of time before Harbaugh would embark on a new line of work, one where he’d be joining his brother John and the Chryst brothers in the coaching profession.

“In San Diego, Jim was contemplating getting into coaching knowing that his playing career was tapering off to an end,” recalls Chryst of the transitional period in Harbaugh’s life. Chryst remained supportive of Harbaugh’s coaching interests while working with the quarterbacks for the Arizona Cardinals (2001-2003) at the same time Harbaugh began a two-year stint as a quality control coach for the Oakland Raiders in 2002.

Once Harbaugh was offered a head coaching position at the University of San Diego, Chryst knew his old friend would become successful. “He had all the qualities of a head coach,” remembers Chryst. “I knew in no short order, when he took the San Diego job, it wasn’t going to be a typical bus stop to bus stop trip for Jim.”

CHRYST ADMIRED Harbaugh’s coaching rise from afar. From the turnaround he guided at the University of San Diego to his impressive, four-year run at Stanford, Chryst frequently watched the growth of a dear friend. “One of the greatest inventions ever was the DVR because over the course of a long weekend you can DVR some games,” jokes Chryst. “I was pretty excited whenever I could watch his games. You could see the Stanford team really take his personality and the incredible improvement.”

Even if it meant in-person visits, Chryst would take the time to watch Harbaugh’s team compete. Chryst later moved on to a five-year coaching stint with the Carolina Panthers, where he served as the team’s tight ends and offensive quality control coach. But throughout his time in Carolina, Chryst was always eager to catch up with Harbaugh whenever given the chance.

In 2009, while coaching with the Panthers, Chryst drove to Winston Salem to watch Wake Forest host Harbaugh’s Stanford team. Chryst can vividly recall Harbaugh’s enthusiasm about the game and a particular emerging player. “He was so excited about a guy who was going to get his first collegiate start,” Chryst says, “A guy by the name of Andrew Luck. He was very excited about the player and it turned out everything he said about Luck turned out true.”

THEIR RELATIONSHIP is typical of the entire 49ers coaching staff, who have all seemingly come into contact at one point or another in their coaching lives. Their friendship is certainly most unique as it dates back to their father’s coaching days, but it doesn’t overshadow the relationships being formed on the staff.

“I’ve really been impressed with the coaching staff Jim has put together. We’ve even had a chance to mingle with the defensive coaches and get to like them on a modest basis,” jokes Chryst with a big grin on his face. In a typical offseason, Chryst and the 49ers coaches would be implementing their schemes while working with the players in various organized team activities and minicamps. But because of the NFL’s current work stoppage, the 49ers coaches have had more time to bond. “We joke that it’s a time for rainy day projects and it continues to rain,” smirks the quarterbacks coach appropriately dressed in a hooded 49ers sweatshirt.

One such project had the offensive staff looking at old 49ers pass cutups, which the team acquired from various resources this offseason from the original Bill Walsh West Coast collection. Chryst, along with offensive coordinator Greg Roman, wide receivers coach John Morton and the offensive staff, has spent a lot of time familiarizing themselves with Walsh’s teachings.

“That stuff is invaluable,” Chryst says. “You realize how talented he was and how some of the same principles he was teaching from the deck of VCRs, those coaching points are still true today. And you also saw as he repeats the installation just how fine of a teacher he was.”

IT’S NO secret; Chryst isn’t the only one eager to work with the quarterbacks on the 49ers roster. But he knows his old friend won’t be far from the group once practices begin. “I joke with Jim that he really wants to be coaching the quarterbacks. Having known Jim as long as I have, and knowing how important it is to Jim to work with these quarterbacks, it’s a nice role to have where it’s not all on my shoulders,” says Chryst. “Jim is going to do a nice job of jumping in whenever he has a chance.”

As for Chryst jumping into a new experience on the West Coast, the Midwesterner is enjoying himself just fine in the Bay Area. “Anytime you’re outside,” Chryst says, “It seems like it’s been great weather.” Until his family relocates with him in the South Bay, Chryst has enjoyed getting to know his fellow coaches as well as being stopped by fans when he’s out for lunch. “I’ve been impressed with the number of Niner fans out here,” says Chryst. “Anytime you get a bite to eat or are out and about, there are a lot of great Niner fans. You don’t realize how close the Niners are to making the playoffs last year and I think without a doubt that’s a legitimate goal this year.”

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