The Wisconsin Badgers football program is in some unforeseen territory. A historic program built on continuity and consistency is now looking for a head coach for the first time since the end of the 2014 season.
Wisconsin made the move to fire head coach Paul Chryst on Sunday after the Badgers were drubbed 34-10 by Illinois on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers will be led by defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard as the interim coach, and he will have two months to audition for the full-time job.
It’s fair to assume, however, that there will be an exhaustive search outside the program as well. When speaking to reporters, Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh said, “I think I owe it to this program to do a full search when the time is right.” For now, let’s take a look at some potential candidates to take the reins of the Badgers program next season.
1. Jim Leonhard
Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator has an inside track to the job as he will get seven games to lead the squad this season. If, say, the Badgers turn it around, and make a run or even make it to the Big Ten Championship Game, it would be safe to say Wisconsin may just remove Leonhard's interim tag.
Leonhard is a Wisconsin legend in his own right. He was a three time first-team All-American, is tied for the UW record in interceptions (50) and was inducted into the UW Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.
Leonhard has been the Badgers defensive coordinator for five years, and his defenses have finished top five in total defense and top ten in scoring defense a staggering four times. Leonhard turned down an offer from the Green Bay Packers in 2021 to stay in Madison, and he might be the man for the job if the team performs well for the remainder of the season.
2. Lance Leipold
Each year there is a coach everyone watches closely to see what his next move will be. This year, that coach appears to be Kansas’ Lance Leipold.
Leipold, a native of Jefferson County in Wisconsin, has engineered an incredible turnaround at Kansas, as he has the historically moribund program at 5-0 and ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 2009. The Jayhawks last won more than five games in 2008, and Leipold has been the guy to wake up KU’s football team.
Before Kansas, Leipold led Buffalo to three straight bowl game appearances, and perhaps most notably, started a dynasty at the nearby UW-Whitewater. Leipold went 109-6 at Whitewater and won six Division III national championships. Leipold will be courted by Nebraska and of course Kansas, but perhaps the lure of returning home to a historic program will make Leipold UW’s next head coach.
3. Dave Aranda
Aranda is currently the head coach at Baylor, where he inherited a program that was upended after the departure of coach Matt Rhule to the Carolina Panthers. The Bears struggled in his first season with a 2-7 record, but they roared to a 12-2 record last year en route to being crowned Big 12 champions.
Aranda has an impressive resume, as he was the defensive coordinator for LSU’s national championship winning team in 2019-20. However, he got his start in Madison. Under Aranda, from 2013-15, Wisconsin’s defenses always finished top 10 in total defense, with their peak being a third place finish in 2015. Aranda may be tough to haul in as he is building a quality program at Baylor, but he is definitely an option Wisconsin should consider.
4. Matt Campbell
Campbell’s name has swirled in coaching searches for a few years, and there are obvious reasons why. Campbell went 35-15 as head coach of Toledo and is currently the head coach at Iowa State. As another program that has struggled a long time, he guided them to five straight winning seasons with the peak being a 9-3 record and a victory in the Fiesta Bowl in 2020.
Campbell doesn’t quite have the relation to Wisconsin that some of the other options have, but he has built winners at his previous stops, and he’ll be another tough coach to procure.
5. Dave Clawson
This is a name not quite as popular as the rest of those on the list, but he should be getting more attention. Clawson led Bowling Green to the MAC title in 2013 and more impressively turned Wake Forest — which is where Clawson coaches right now — into a consistent winner.
Since taking over Wake in 2014, Clawson has led the Demon Deacons to a school record six consecutive bowl games (which is the second longest in the ACC behind Clemson), as well as the ACC Championship last year. Despite losing to Pitt, they finished with 11 wins on the season. Since 2016, Wake has gone 45-30, which is an impressive pattern of sustained success at a school not previously known for football.