Bart Houston loved the idea of spending the next four years at the University of Wisconsin under the tutelage of Paul Chryst, who had exclusively handled the recruiting of the prized California prep quarterback.
But Houston made clear Thursday in the wake of Chryst's departure that he made his oral commitment to the program, not to any one individual. He confirmed his commitment Wednesday to Badgers coach Bret Bielema, who called to let Houston know that Pittsburgh was going to hire Chryst as its head coach.
"He's a great coach and everybody wants him, and I said in another article that someone should pay him $40 million to get him — he's that good of a coach," Houston said of Chryst, who served as offensive coordinator for the last seven seasons and quarterbacks coach for the last six. "It sucks for Wisconsin and everything; he's one of the reasons why I picked to go to Wisconsin.
"But that's not going to change anything. When I'm up there we're not going to stop the winning tradition he's implemented at Wisconsin. Whoever they get as quarterbacks coach is going to do a great job."
Houston, an Eagle Scout who has expressed interest in studying engineering at Wisconsin, said his affinity for the Badgers is rooted in the ideal that "the program is bigger than themseves." Houston recalled that during his campus visit, his hosts saw a first-year teammate wearing a Big Ten Conference title ring in public. They pledged that theirs would sit on their shelves collecting dust because that one belonged to the seniors, and in time they would be upperclassmen and have a chance to earn their own ring.
Bielema told Houston he intends to bring along his new quarterbacks coach in January when they are scheduled to have dinner in California, following Houston's appearance in the inaugural U.S. Marine Corps All-American Bowl on Jan. 3 in Phoenix, a game that'll be televised by CBS Sports Network (formerly College Sports Television). That commitment will preclude him from attending the Rose Bowl, where the Badgers are to face Oregon the previous day..
Last Saturday, Houston led famed De La Salle High School to its third straight California Open Division state title to finish 38-1 as a starter, with the Spartans finishing at No. 7 nationally according to USA Today's Super 25.
He got off to a rocky start as a senior, most notably when he committed two fumbles and threw an interception while completing just 6-of-16 passes for 79 yards in a 30-6 loss at No. 2 St. Thomas Aquinas of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the alma mater of Badgers running back James White, defensive back Dezmen Southward and linebacker/defensiveback Conor O'Neill.
But Houston regrouped and led De La Salle to 11 straight victories. During that span he amassed 1,754 passing yards (he finished at 1,999 for the season), along with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions, and rushed for 16 scores for a season total of 19.
"I was taking on too much responsibility: This is my team and I have to do everything," he acknowledged. "But after that game, I took a few steps back and realized I can't do it all myself, that I have all my other teammates to help carry the weight."
Houston reiterated that he will not enroll early at Wisconsin because he still must complete his high school coursework. But he intends to arrive in Madison on June 1 with a good handle on the playbook, ready to compete for the starting job.
The Badgers will have a gap in both experience and numbers at the position this spring, with Russell Wilson poised to play his final game in the Rose Bowl and the two most seasoned reserves nursing major injuries; third-year sophomore Jon Budmayr is still experiencing nerve issues in his throwing arm despite corrective surgery, and fourth-year junior Curt Phillips is battling back from a third reconstructive knee surgery.
The only other quarterbacks in the program are redshirt freshman Joe Brennan, who appeared in a mop-up role in six games this season and completed 6-of-15 passes for 48 yards and an interception, and freshman walk-on Joel Stave.
"I'm a hard-nosed competitior. I love competition; that's why I played sports as a kid, why I play football. That's just another competition. Of course I'm going to try to win it," Houston said of the battle for the starting job.
"I was told by coach Chryst that their mentality is, the best guy's going to play, no matter what — whether he's a redshirt senior or a true freshman. I'm going to try to prepare myself to the fullest."