Did Wisconsin Really Need to Make A Move Now?

Did Wisconsin Really Need to Make A Move Now?
Wisconsin Badger Defensive Line (Tom Lynn/Wisconsin Athletic Communications)

Hey there. You're not used to seeing one of my articles pop up in your inbox during the middle of the week. But, this has been no ordinary week. Late Sunday evening the University of Wisconsin unexpectedly fired head football coach Paul Chryst. This surprising news hit close to home.

If you've ever watched my YouTube Channel – hey, thanks! – you've seen two mini helmets positioned behind my head. One for the Tennessee Volunteers, and one for the Wisconsin Badgers.

A Screenshot From My Latest YouTube Video

Many people reading this article also follow me on Twitter and will already be familiar with my connection to Tennessee. What might be less clear is why I care about Wisconsin. Really quickly, here's why:

In 2001 my dad left his job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I hope I'm allowed to say that and it's not like a goverment secret or something. If it is then, sorry, dad! He landed an academic position at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. Our family moved from Knoxville to the Milwaukee suburbs in the late summer of 2001. To check out how Big Ten football compared to football down south my dad took me to my first Badger game in the fall of 2002. It was against Minnesota, the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.

I still remember so much about that day. I remember walking down to the field and being able to touch the Astro-Turf carpet that covered the Camp Randall Stadium playing surface. I remember Wisconsin running back Anthony Davis running wild over the Gopher defense. He had 301 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the day! I remember watching the Gopher coaches chew out their defensive line on the bench. I remember seeing this guy named Jim Leonhard picking off Minnesota's quarterback twice in the fourth quarter to help ice the game. When the game ended, I remember watching the Badger team swarm the Minnesota bench area – close to where our seats were located – to reclaim this gigantic wooden axe. They hoisted the axe high in the air, walked around the field with it, and pretended to chop down the goal posts. I was hooked on Wisconsin football.

I recognize that in today's 24-hour news cycle Paul Chryst's termination is old news. If I wanted to be considered relevant as a member of the college football media I should have had a hot take and a list of potential replacements ready to go Sunday night. I don't want to be that guy, though. Especially not with Wisconsin. I'm intentionally writing this article a few days late because I wanted to observe the media reaction and organize my thoughts on a team that I care so deeply about. This article is more of a reaction to the reaction.

The commonly repeated narrative that I've noticed so far from multiple outlets is that Wisconsin has viewed interim head coach Jim Leonhard as "coach-in-waiting," and they're giving him a seven game audition to prove his readiness for the full-time position.

I'm not convinced that's really what's going on.

Here are Wisconsin's remaining seven games:
10/8 - at Northwestern
10/15 - at Michigan State
10/22 - Purdue
10/29 - BYE
11/5 - Maryland
11/12 - at Iowa
11/19 - at Nebraska
11/26 - Minnesota

If you have a coach who you view as the next man up wouldn't you want to set him up to have as much success as possible? I don't think that making a coaching change at this point in the season really does that. Preparing for a division opponent is difficult enough. Now, Wisconsin will have the additional headaches of reorganizing staff responsibilities and adjusting game day sideline operation in the absence of Chryst. These are headaches that could have more easily been ironed out during the bye week. Further, Leonhard will need to pick up additional responsibilites on top of already coordinating the defense. I certainly think he's capable, but this issue is why coordinators are often not picked to be interim head coaches.

I understand that the Big Ten West isn't the strongest division in football. I also understand that, technically, the division is still up for grabs. For an average Wiscosin team this might be a favorable schedule. But for this Wisconsin team, with injury concerns and the surprise firing of their coach, I see it as a much more difficult stretch. The bye week doesn't come until the end of the month. The Badgers start the post-Chryst era with two straight road games. The weaker opponents left on the schedule are all road tests, some in very difficult environments. And, say what you will about some of those teams but they can at least score points – something the Badgers have struggled with so far this year.

So, for Wisconsin, what are they hoping to learn in the next seven games that they don't already know about Leonhard? In addition to playing at Wisconsin he's been on staff for seven straight years now. He's coordinated the defense since 2017. Shouldn't decision makers already be familiar with who he is as a coach? I don't think he should need seven games – under these circumstances, especially – to prove himself.

As for the coach-in-waiting component, why not hold off until the end of the year to move on from Chryst if that's the direction Wisconsin wanted to go? Chryst was locked into a long-term contract at the time of his firing. Wisconsin wasn't going to face a conflict of needing to extend him at season's end. Chryst was two wins away from second place all-time in wins as a Wisconsin head coach, behind only legend Barry Alvarez. Leonhard has received interest from other openings in the past – notably the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator position – but has turned them down to stay at Wisconsin. Considering that history it's difficult for me to imagine that he would leave for a different job if he knew for certain that he was the number one option to replace Chryst.

There isn't a very compelling reason for why the Badgers had to make this move now. So, in my opinion, the urgency Wisconsin has shown points to competition with another program for a different coach. Although I can't say for certain my assumption would be that the Badgers are very strongly considering Lance Leipold, a Wisconsin native with ties to both Wisconsin and Nebraska. I'm curious if that's the direction the Badgers are headed.

Let me absolutely clear, I am a massive fan of Jim Leonhard. In terms of defensive football inteligence I think he's as sharp a coach as you can find. He's capable of leading this program, and I think the job should be his if he wants it. He's got my vote – for whatever that's worth – to be the next coach at Wisconsin. What I'm struggling to understand is, if the Badgers already felt like they had their guy, why would they drop him into such a suboptimal situation?  

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