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With Big Ten West in flux, Wisconsin embraces its identity

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst speaks to the media during the NCAA college Big Ten Football Media Day Thursday, July 30, 2015 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

CHICAGO — About the same time his running back was making a crack comparing the Huskers to a flip phone, Wisconsin’s head coach was at a nearby table thinking of the time Mike Riley called and offered him a job down in San Antonio.

That was 1991. Paul Chryst was 26. And he was shoveling snow in Wisconsin.

“I had no job. My career was going really well for me,” he joked. “I had just finished being a graduate assistant, didn’t have something. I remember the day he called me. That was a big deal for me.”

Riley was coaching the San Antonio Riders of the World League, and he wondered if young Paul wanted to come down and join the fun. Chryst put the shovel down and spent the next two years as Riley’s wide receivers, running backs and tight ends coach.

“From that job on, I think that Mike was a factor in every job I got. Huge,” Chryst said. “Because of what I learned, or connections, or what we were able to do together.”

Chryst coached with Riley again in 1997-98 as his offensive coordinator at Oregon State, then as his tight ends coach with the San Diego Chargers from 1999-2001, then as his offensive coordinator at Oregon State again in 2003-04.

That’s a lot of highs and lows and lessons to go through together, and now … well, now they’re chasing the exact same darn thing as rivals.

Well, that’s what they’re supposed to be, at least, now that Riley is the head coach of Nebraska and Chryst is the head coach of Wisconsin. Two teams that think they’re Big Red, and only one can rule the West.

They come to their new positions just as this Nebraska-Wisconsin rivalry seems ready to elevate itself. The games haven’t always been great, but they have been memorable, mostly for being train wrecks. Wisconsin has won three of four. All three wins have been by at least 31 points. One was by a score of 70-31. Then came last year's 59-24 avalanche in Madison, with the score not even being the most embarrassing part for Nebraska.

That’d be Melvin Gordon’s 408 rushing yards in three quarters.

And Thursday, during the first round of Big Ten Media Days at McCormick Place, brought even a little more spice. The Huskers got a commitment from four-star running back Jordan Stevenson, formerly a prized Badger signee who found out just last week Wisconsin wouldn’t admit him into the school.

Now he’ll be playing against them for Nebraska.

Then there was Wisconsin running back Corey Clement offering a little smack that was lighthearted but still likely to end up posted in a Husker locker room.

He was recalling when he was a recruit in New Jersey in 2012 and considering Nebraska. He liked running backs coach Ron Brown. Then he saw that 70-31 demolition by the Badgers in Indy.

"It's like, you've got an iPhone. Then you got a flip phone,” Clement said. “You see all these great features the iPhone can do, and then you look at the flip phone, which phone are you going to go with? I'm going with the iPhone. That's how I compare Wisconsin to Nebraska. Nebraska is a flip phone (laughs with reporters), and Wisconsin is an iPhone.

"So, I mean, I'm like, 'Mom, I want to go to the Apple store. I don't want to go to the Sprint store.' So, who wouldn't want to go with what is best at that moment?"

When Wisconsin safety Michael Caputo was asked by the Journal Star if the Badgers and Huskers can build a rivalry now that they’re in the same division, he seemed to think you could already remove the word “build” from that question.

“Personally, it might not be on paper, but I think Nebraska and Wisconsin is a rivalry," Caputo said. “Ever since they’ve stepped into the Big Ten in 2011, they’re a great team, they’re another great team. Every Big Ten team we have on our schedule is a playoff game. It’s the championship game. That’s what it is every week. That’s what I love about the Big Ten is it’s smash-mouth football, and that’s what Nebraska brings to the table.”

Beats being called a flip phone.

The fact remains the Huskers now have plenty to prove on the field. While Wisconsin faces many of the same questions as Nebraska with a new head coach, the Badgers found themselves ranked No. 18 in the preseason coaches’ poll while NU was outside the Top 25. Not to mention 32 of 40 media members picked the Badgers to win the West Division.

Wisconsin’s recent success has provided it the benefit of the doubt Nebraska used to get.

Chryst seems to like the makeup of this team. There's a lot of guys who have won a lot of games. That doesn’t mean they can rest on what's past.

“The message that I will give the team is it doesn’t matter what any poll or any person says,” Chryst said. “That’s the way we have to go about it is we have to earn it again. The bar has been set high. And I’ve been proud to be a part of raising that bar. And you can’t take that away. That’s real stuff. Wisconsin has played in three of the last four Big Ten Championships … that’s awesome. But the same way you talk about Wisconsin offensive linemen: ‘They’re always going to have great linemen.’ No, you got to earn that. It doesn’t just happen. I think we have guys that know that.”

What Chryst also knows is he’ll always have a fondness for Riley, even when they do meet up on those Saturdays in the fall with a lot on the line.

That's the guy who called him when that snow felt pretty cold.

"I think both of us, and I think I learned from Mike as much as anyone, the game has never been about us," Chryst said. "I think we take coaching serious, and we're really fortunate to be coaching, but also believe that the game is played between the lines.

"Certainly you want to compete and want to win, right? But our relationship goes a lot deeper to where being rivals isn’t going to get in the way of that."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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