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Saturday, October 01, 2022
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Taylor Wolfram

Column: Paul Chryst is a good coach, will never be great

We have barely begun the eighth year of the Paul Chryst era in Madison, and the Badgers have already suffered a head-scratching loss. How many frustrating losses will it take before Chryst is truly held accountable?

From the top of the student section, all I could think was, “Not again.”

Alas, it did happen again. The Wisconsin Badgers lost another game they had no business losing.

This specific loss is not why I’m writing a negative column. This loss felt familiar. It had all the same characteristics of every other WTF loss during the Paul Chryst era. 

The Badgers looked unprepared on offense — with one of the worst offensive line performances I’ve ever seen from Wisconsin. The scoring was far from balanced — as the Badgers’ offense completely fell asleep in the second half. 

Mistakes were the story of the day. Wisconsin accumulated three turnovers, including tight end Clay Cundiff’s fumble in the fourth quarter to kill any chance of winning. The Badgers also committed an asinine 11 penalties for 106 yards. This part is all too familiar — the Badgers have averaged over five penalties per game in five of Chryst’s first seven seasons, with another at 4.9. 

The Washington State Cougars did not win because they were so unbelievably excellent. That would’ve been acceptable. The Badgers shot themselves in the foot, repeatedly — not acceptable.

There may be no single person to blame for the loss, but these shortcomings are no fluke. I can accept individual player mistakes, like Cundiff’s fumble. However, these mistakes are becoming far too common. When mistakes become the norm, it is usually the result of leadership. I am most upset at Paul Chryst.

This is not a complete “Chryst sucks” column. Chryst is a good head coach.

Through his first seven complete seasons, Chryst has accumulated a record of 65-23 — that’s an average of about 9.3 wins per season. Nine wins is a good year! 

The issue is that Chryst is the embodiment of a nine win season. He’s a good coach, but will never push himself or those around him to consistently win more than that. 

The Badgers operate as if they’re deathly afraid to have a bad season or two. Wisconsin would rather assuredly win nine games every year than take a gamble for the opportunity to become a 10 or 11 win-per-year program. 

Chryst is a good coach who makes Wisconsin competitive in the Big Ten West. What if Wisconsin was more competitive with the rest of the Big Ten? Or on a national scale? 

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Come on, Chryst

An argument in favor of Chryst is that he overachieves based on Wisconsin’s talent. That is a fact; Wisconsin does overachieve based on recruiting results. However, the head coach of a college football team is responsible for attracting said recruits. I’d rather he put more effort into recruiting than “maximizing” three-stars.

I don’t expect any Wisconsin coach to attract a top five recruiting class. I understand the difficulty of convincing teenagers that Wisconsin is better than California or Texas. The only cold weather programs that attract true elite talent are Ohio State and Notre Dame, two programs that are far superior to Wisconsin. 

In the current 2023 recruiting class, Wisconsin ranks twelfth in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports. First off, holy hell. Second off, the Nebraska Cornhuskers ranked two spots higher than the Badgers. They just fired their head coach. The team that fired their head coach has two more four-star recruits than Wisconsin — who has zero. 

It’s also been made clear that Chryst doesn’t care about the star system. Maybe he should. A few stars could be the difference when the Badgers face real teams like Ohio State. Underwhelming talent is less obvious against the Illinois States of the world.

On that note, since taking over as head coach at Wisconsin in 2015, Chryst is 54-5 vs. teams which finish the year outside the AP Top 25. On the other end, among schools which ended the year ranked in the final AP poll, Chryst is 11-18. Basically, the Badgers beat up on mediocre teams and crumble against any team worth a damn. 

Chryst is a former quarterback himself. You may think this detail would be obvious in Wisconsin’s gameplans. It’s not. Chryst coaches as if he hates quarterbacks. He comes across as more of an ex-fullback. 

Wisconsin is a notoriously run-heavy program — boasting multiple talented professional running backs like Jonathan Taylor and Melvin Gordon III. I’ll never expect the Badgers to pass 50 times per game, but you would think an ex-quarterback head coach would show some willingness to balance the offense. 

“That’s because Wisconsin quarterbacks always stink.” First off, that’s partially recruiting (see above). Secondly, his approach to quarterback play is more concerning than the results. 

In the postgame press conference of Wisconsin’s most recent game, Chryst was clearly annoyed at Mertz for some of his downfield throwing decisions.

“A couple times, I thought he pushed it down there when I thought there was something else, maybe a little bit higher-percentage,” Chryst said. 

This quote made my blood boil. Mertz finally has two good games in a row, and Chryst is upset that he didn’t throw more slants and out-routes. He doesn’t care at all that Mertz is developing confidence after a 2021 season devoid of confidence. 

Chryst finally made Badgers fans excited about the quarterback position after Mertz committed back in 2017, becoming the highest rated quarterback recruit in Badger history. Yet, Chryst wishes Mertz would play like any other three-star Wisconsin quarterback. 

Look around at the sport, Paul. Besides Georgia’s Stetson Bennet in 2021, who had one of the best defenses ever, the teams that win in college football have the best quarterbacks in the country. Imagining a potential quarterback recruit hearing that quote makes me want to revolt.

So, Wisconsin makes too many mistakes, underachieves in recruiting and does not show a willingness to evolve their offense. Aren’t these issues that would fall on an offensive head coach?

Two words: Jim Leonhard

Frankly, a major reason Chryst’s shortcomings haven’t truly caught up with him is because of the Badgers’ consistently elite defense, led by coordinator Jim Leonhard. 

Besides an aberration 2018 season, Leonhard’s Badger defenses have never finished outside of the national top ten in total defense.

Leonhard is the most interesting cog in the Chryst hot seat storyline. Given the defense’s continued excellence, I believe Leonhard is the best coach on the Badgers’ staff — not Paul Chryst. 

What Leonhard does with such little defensive talent, compared to the other consistently best defenses in the country, is unbelievably impressive. 

Wisconsin’s offense is prone to struggle without phenomenal running backs. We saw this last season, when the team started 1-3 before Braelon Allen became the lead back. The defense loses core players and remains elite. 

Leonhard could very well leave Madison whenever he feels like it. He has already been offered an NFL coordinator position with the Green Bay Packers, which he turned down. His name also often comes up whenever college head coach positions become available, as we are now seeing with the recent Nebraska buzz

Every time he is asked about the idea of leaving for greater opportunities, Leonhard seems to brush it off, calmly reminding reporters that he enjoys Madison. 

“I have talked about it a lot, man, I am comfortable here. I am not saying this is the place I'll be for the rest of my life, but I love this place,” he told 247Sports. 

His commitment to Wisconsin is reassuring but never guaranteed. A very smart program will eventually make him an offer too good to pass up on. In the event Leonhard leaves, the Badgers would be stuck without a backup option if Chryst leaves or gets canned.

Coaches as good as Leonhard do not simply appear in Madison. If the Badgers let him slip away, while continuing to accept Chryst’s results, the program will endure the consequences. 

This is a direct message to athletic director Chris McIntosh: You have two options. You can continue to have “good” football seasons where you will end up in a decent bowl game, usually nothing more. Or, you can roll the dice. Take a chance on the coordinator who everybody knows is good enough to be a quality head coach. There is no guarantee that Leonhard will win 10 or 11 games every year, but I believe he is the majority of the reason Chryst’s Badgers have been so good in the first place.

The right man to lead the Badgers may already be in Madison, but his name is not Chryst.

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