Ask Geep Chryst when he first met Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers quarterbacks coach laughs.
It was 1987. The Bears were at their training camp at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. And Harbaugh, Chicago’s first-round draft pick, was on a collision course with a very expensive vehicle owned by a very large man.
“At that time getting around the campus of Wisconsin-Platteville, a lot of the Bears had mopeds,” said Chryst, who was assisting at the camp at Platteville, where his dad was the football coach. “There were some shots in Sports Illustrated of guys cruising around campus and Jim was all excited to get himself a new moped. And before he had ripped the plastic off his moped, he proceeded to drive it right toward William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry’s Mercedes.”
Chryst clearly enjoys the memory. Harbaugh avoided disaster. And it wouldn’t be the last time Chryst saw Captain Comeback escape a perilous situation in a 15-year career during which the pair established a lasting connection.
Chryst, 48, was an assistant for three seasons (1991-93) during Harbaugh’s tenure in Chicago before he became his offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach with the Chargers in 1999-2000. The duo developed an excellent working relationship: In 1999, Harbaugh, then 35, had the second-most yards (2,761) and completions (249) of his career as Chryst installed the no-huddle offense.
Chryst said Harbaugh, whose skills had diminished with age, was able to thrive due to his superior on-field intellect.
“The feedback that he gave you when he was out there playing — that’s really what was happening. He had that ability to capture that picture and then help you,” Chryst said. “And so any time you have that level of communication, and that level of trust, and that level of respect, I think you can go further within an offense. You knew you could do stuff with Jim even though maybe his physical skills weren’t where they were when he first came out of Michigan.”
That trust and respect was obviously mutual. In January, Harbaugh hired Chryst as the quarterbacks coach. It’s safe to assume they will work together with the 49ers signal-callers and that shared responsibility isn’t all they have in common.
Like Harbaugh, Chryst is the son of a former football coach (his late father, George Chryst, was the coach and athletic director at Platteville) and one of his brothers is also a coach (Paul Chryst is the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin and another brother, Rick Chryst, is the former commissioner of the Mid-American Conference).
Their fathers’ influence led both into the grind of NFL coaching — Harbaugh and Chryst clearly had other options given their backgrounds.
Harbaugh is the millionaire ex-quarterback who didn’t go into broadcasting – among the league’s top-75 in career pass attempts, he is the only NFL coach. Chryst is the Ivy League graduate who didn’t go to Wall Street – he played football and baseball at Princeton and went on to add a master’s degree from Wisconsin.
They are separated by 18 months (Chryst is older) and their proximity in age helps explain why their player-coach relationship in San Diego featured plenty of laughs.
Before kickoffs, Chryst enjoyed watching Harbaugh mimic his counterpart’s motion.
“Jim was also a lot of fun,” Chryst said. “He can watch an opposing quarterback warm-up and, like we used to do sometimes with baseball swings, he could kind of have the keen eye to watch it and then quickly integrate that into ‘Hey, this is how he throws.’ He’s great at that.”
They have serious work ahead. They will likely be charged with developing a rookie quarterback and, perhaps, altering the trajectory of Alex Smith’s career.
They successfully worked together when Harbaugh was an aging NFL quarterback. And Chryst looks forward to doing it again with Harbaugh now in the role of young NFL coach.
“His enthusiasm is natural,” Chryst said. “It’s contagious. You hope to match that. We love to get together and the days go quickly when you’re around Jim. It’s an awful lot of fun.”