Chryst is Harbaugh's right-hand man

Pair who bonded with Bears in early '90s now coaching together with 49ers

NEW ORLEANS — When Jim Harbaugh felt Chicago's walls closing in on him during his final, fateful season as a Bears quarterback in 1993, he often sought refuge at old Halas Hall in the basement office of Geep Chryst.

Chryst, the Bears' director of quality control then and now the 49ers' quarterbacks coach, impressed Harbaugh with his ability to simplify life's problems as easily as he did an opponent's defense. As Harbaugh endured the most difficult of his 14 NFL seasons, Chryst always kept his door open to the man who started closing himself off to others.

"Jim and I would just have easy conversations in the office about football and other things since we always had that Big Ten storyline,'' recalled Chryst, who grew up in Madison, Wis., and spent 1988 on the Wisconsin staff. "We kept it comfortable, football-centric. That's what fuels you when things aren't going well.''

The two first developed a rapport during Harbaugh's first training camp in 1987 at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where Chryst's father, George, was the football coach and Chryst helped the Bears as a do-everything ball boy. Nobody was happier than Harbaugh when Mike Ditka found a spot for Chryst on the Bears staff before the 1991 season, two years before the young assistant coach made his biggest impact as a friend.

The two men dissected the West Coast offense that, at the time, was foreign to Harbaugh. They laughed about the day in Platteville as a Bears rookie when Harbaugh crashed his new moped into William Perry's gold Mercedes. They bantered over Big Ten football, especially the Oct. 4, 1986, game in which Harbaugh's Michigan team beat Chryst's beloved Badgers 34-17 in the first night game at Camp Randall Stadium.

Chryst still chuckles at the memory of Harbaugh twice refusing to take the snap until the Wisconsin crowd noise died down because old rules penalized the home team if its fans got too loud for the opposing offense to hear signals.

"Whether Jim couldn't hear or just pretended he couldn't, I still don't know, but I'll never forget how irate those students got at that No. 4 character,'' said Chryst, 50. "That was my first exposure to Jim Harbaugh.''

His next came as an affable Bears training-camp assistant who caught the eye of Ditka, who remembered Chryst's work ethic when he had a staff opening. Chryst enjoyed three seasons coaching college players, but the former Princeton linebacker thought pro football represented a smarter career move — and that's where he has been the last two decades except for a two-month hiatus in 1992 as a long snapper in the defunct World Football League.

"He was a hardworking guy who wanted to know the game and study the game, and you appreciate people like that,'' said Ditka, who gave Chryst his first NFL job.

After Chryst left the Bears in 1995, he joined Vince Tobin's Cardinals staff and worked the '98 season with Bears coach Marc Trestman, "a sharp, intelligent guy'' in Chryst's words. A reunion with Harbaugh came in 1999 in San Diego, where Chryst took over as Chargers offensive coordinator and the team traded for a mentor for Ryan Leaf.

More than a decade later, in 2011, when Harbaugh formed his first NFL coaching staff, he plucked Chryst away from another ex-Bear, Panthers coach Ron Rivera, after Chryst's fifth season in Carolina.

Whether it was steadying Alex Smith or developing Colin Kaepernick, Harbaugh needed somebody he knew from experience a quarterback could trust.

"Geep has been great,'' Kaepernick said. "He is always in our ear, talking, making sure we know every situation that might come up. It's a constant conversation.''

The weeklong conversation about coaching brothers wasn't restricted to the Harbaughs. Geep — short for George Patrick — remains proud of his younger brother Paul, the head coach at Pittsburgh and former Wisconsin offensive coordinator. Another brother, Rick, used to be the Mid-American Conference commissioner.

But Chryst's eyes really lit up discussing his son Keller, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound quarterback from Palo Alto, Calif., rated one of the top prospects for 2014.

Keller Chryst was born in Lake Forest Hospital. When it came time to name their first son, the Chrysts liked the idea of honoring a man who had meant so much to their family: Michael Keller Ditka.

"We just thought 'Keller Chryst' had a nice sound, and fortunately for him, he's continuing the name playing football,'' Chryst said. "Mike is phenomenal, a Chicago treasure and very special to me. He engenders loyalty.''

Coaching in the Super Bowl for the man he used to counsel suggests Chryst has the same effect on people.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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