Rick Chryst ’83, one of the most highly-respected student-athletes to come out of Notre Dame, served as commissioner of the Mid-American Conference for 10 years (1999-2009). He sat at the negotiating table for a decade with the BCS conferences, helping shape the landscape that is intercollegiate athletics.
Chryst, a Madison, Wis., was captain and most valuable player of the 1983 Notre Dame baseball team. He received the Byron V. Kanaley award from Notre Dame for excellence in academics and leadership, which is the highest honor given a Notre Dame student-athlete. He earned his degree in Economics magna cum laude and was a Rhodes Scholar candidate. In 1989, he graduated Juris Doctor with Honors from Duke Law School, and passed the bar exam the same year. During law school, he served as Administrative Editor of Duke’s Law and Contemporary Problems.
After a stint as assistant sports information director at the Naval Academy, Chryst served as assistant commissioner of the Southwest Conference (1989-92) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (1992-99) before landing the top position with the MAC.
Chryst comes from a family of football coaches, including his father, the late George Chryst, who was the long-time head coach and athletics director at Wisconsin-Platteville. His brother, George Jr. (Geep), is the current tight ends coach for the Carolina Panthers and is now in his 17th season in the NFL. His brother, Paul, is the offensive coordinator for the Wisconsin Badgers following a stint in the same capacity at Oregon State.
Chryst was the commissioner of the MAC when Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was named the head coach at Central Michigan, where he served from 2004-06.
Following a 10-year stint as commissioner of the MAC, Chryst joined Walter & Haverfield, a sports law firm based in Cleveland that works with clients on matters related to NCAA rules compliance and infractions, media negotiation, and drafting contracts.
Irish Illustrated senior editor Tim Prister interviewed Chryst Thursday via phone regarding conference expansion and Notre Dame’s role within the industry.
TIM PRISTER: In writing about realignment and expansion the other day, I had some fun with it by saying that I was writing about it because I drew the short straw at Irish Illustrated. My point was that there are so many interconnecting parts — there are so many dominoes on the table — that I could make a million calls and speculate as to what is going to happen with the conferences and Notre Dame, but we don’t know how those dominoes are going to fall, especially as it pertains to Notre Dame.
RICK CHRYST: No question. You could make 10 calls and probably hear what was said in your first call by the 10th call. It’s very self-referencing.
TP: You sat at the negotiating table with the BCS conferences. Did you have a foretelling of what is happening with the major conferences today? Did you see this coming?
RC: My sense from being in the room was that we’ve been through three or four cycles of expansion and realignment, the most recent of which prior to this was the ACC expansion and its fairly extensive ripples in 2003. There was a general feeling after that that there might be additional structural change.
So prior to the Big Ten announcement last December (of its wishes to expand), there was a general feeling that the landscape then wouldn’t be what it would be a decade later, but I’m not sure the people saw it coming from the Big Ten necessarily.
TP: Why is realignment necessary?
RC: Where I have seen it in the 20 years I was in conference work was typically in advance of or coordinated with a media rights deal.
In laymen’s terms and a more straightforward answer is that the economics of the industry are really pushing all administrators to try to find the revenue strings and the incremental revenue strings. The degree to which your membership shapes (policy) — which obviously is to a very strong degree — keeps membership on the agenda of expansion in every almost every conference meeting.
TP: Who do you think stands to benefit from realignment the most?
RC: It’s too early to tell.
TP: If your answer to who will benefit the most is too early to call, is it too early to call who will be damaged the most? On the surface, it looks like the Big 12.
RC: It’s still early, and I think it’s early in terms of whatever realignments occur. It’s too early in terms of how the conferences perform. Case in point: I used to work for the Southwest Conference, so I was there in the early stages when Arkansas went to the SEC. I testified before the Texas state legislature.
So what I put to you is: TCU didn’t make the Big 12 cut back then, but Baylor did. Whose program is in better shape today?
It’s still early. Everyone administratively, whether you’re in a conference chair or an institutional chair or a governance position, really feels the responsibility to try to be proactive, to try to control as much of your destiny as you can. But you’re not operating in a vacuum. Very few institutions are in that position to completely control their outcomes.
TP: Part of what I wrote (Wednesday) was that each individual school is trying to take care of itself, but in some instances like the handful of schools that are being courted by the Pac 10, they’ve got to work in concert with one another too. And isn’t that incredibly difficult?
RC: That’s really difficult to do. In 1989, 1990, 1991, there was a political overlay to it. The ACC stance then (involved) the governor of the state of Virginia playing a very prominent role, and it’s even more magnified now with the political engagement of issues of this magnitude.
"For Notre Dame to stay independent, the landscape needs to remain fairly stable. The more dramatic the changes, the more difficult it will be for Notre Dame to remain an independent."
- Rick Chryst TP: So how long does it take for this to shake out?
RC: There’s a natural rhythm to this stuff, and I agree with (Notre Dame athletics director) Jack (Swarbrick). Once the competitive season starts, that’s sort of a natural timeline, not that it fits it perfectly. My sense is that it wouldn’t get too deep into the fall, too deep past Sept. 1.
The reports from the Pac 10 have probably accelerated some of this. But my sense is that it’s tough to sustain a high level of engagement and dialogue for months and months and months.
TP: Is it realistic, is it feasible that this all shakes out before the start of the football season?
RC: Yes, at least at the top level. I think it will extend throughout the industry. I don’t know that it will all be tied up in 60-to-90 days.
TP: But there must be a common sense of urgency to get this done.
TP: So how many major conferences do we end up having after this?
RC: It’s great fun for everyone to pull out there own crystal ball. But I don’t think people can know the answer to that yet.
TP: What impact does all of this have on your former conference, the MAC, as well as the Mountain West, the WAC, etc.
RC: Everyone will be impacted because if the expansion is as broad as it’s being discussed, it absolutely creates another (impact) on the post-season, too, as well as the makeup of each conference.
TP: The Big 12 looks like it’s the one that will be pillaged. So what happens to the Big 12? Does it continue to try to exist? If it does, now it has to start grabbing schools from the secondary conferences.
RC: I don’t know if it’s because I’m sitting in a different chair, but what might be distinguishing about this round is that more than any other time that I can remember, this would be institutionally driven and orchestrated as opposed to conference coordinated. Even the way the Big Ten has gone about it has not been in a packaged form.
So I don’t know that it’s the corporate, conference entity that is really brokering this. I think each institution is out there evaluating where it fits best. Again, you can’t do it in a vacuum, but it’s less collective than prior expansion from my experience.
It’s not that the commissioners are on the sidelines, but I don’t know — with the possible exception of the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference, and on some level the Pac 10 — that it’s the league saying, ‘We’re doing this.’ Each institution is evaluating on its own.
TP: That’s a little scary. That’s a lot of factions trying to swing their own deal.
RC: No question.
TP: It is anticipated that Nebraska is about to join the Big Ten. Would the Big Ten be satisfied with that, or will they try to go up to 14 or 16?
RC: I don’t think the Big Ten has a specific number in mind. They’ve been, by industry standards, very open about their process. They’ve considered more broadly rather than less broadly institutions that would be a good fit for them, and by all accounts, Nebraska absolutely falls into that category. There may be four others in that universe. There may be six others. There may be eight others.
Again, knowing the significance of the issues involved and knowing the public dimension of the issues involved, I think the Big Ten will still look to keep with its process, to keep with its timeline, to keep with its goals of being open and transparent.
It’s a different dynamic than other expansion scenarios that have played out. I think there are multiple outcomes that the Big Ten could be comfortable with.
TP: What are the factors that Notre Dame has to consider? Are they the ones that we generally talk about in the media, such as scheduling and fitting through that window of opportunity before the window is shut on Notre Dame, and making sure the other sports besides football have a conference-affiliated home?
RC: It’s what generally has been out there, and I think there’s a very strong institutional understanding of that. Jack (Swarbrick) gets it, and the challenge is to really try to forecast how to sustain and support those values for your program and for your student-athletes in what could be a dramatically changed environment.
Jack and the leadership at Notre Dame are equipped to do that, which doesn’t have to take you away from your core mission and principles. Brian (Kelly) is bringing a high level of energy obviously, and — (laughing) like all like great MAC-trained coaches — he’ll have tremendous success.
My sense is Notre Dame has clarity on that part of it, and is just trying to get full information on the landscape. You’re never going to get perfect information, but Jack is in a great position to get the information he needs, and institutionally, I think there will be a good basis for whatever course is ultimately determined.
I think Notre Dame is going about its business in a really considered way. The program, through the efforts of so many people with the overall athletics program, is exemplary in so many ways, and I think the Big East has been a part of it.
TP: So what has to happen for Notre Dame to remain an independent?
RC: There has got to be an institutional confidence about an ability to compete at the highest level in all its sports, which means continuing to have a really energized conference for the sports outside of football. A vision — not just scheduling-wise, not just post-season-wise, not just television/marketing-wise — but comprehensively a vision for where your football program can go.
Brian is going to bring that, Jack has it, and the leadership has it. The more direct or concise way to say it is the word that Jack used — seismic. I think for Notre Dame to stay independent, the landscape needs to remain fairly stable.
If there is significant change…the more dramatic the changes, the more difficult it will be for Notre Dame to remain an independent.
TP: At the end of the day, is Notre Dame in a conference or not?
RC: (laughing) Can you call me back?
TP: How much time do you need?
RC: (laughing) I’m not going there.