In just his second year on the job, athletic director Chris McIntosh has already set the tone for the program.
“The expectations of our program at Wisconsin are to win championships,” McIntosh said at a news conference following the decision to fire head coach Paul Chryst. “I felt that it was the right time to make a change to pursue those.”
The athletic director made it abundantly clear prior Wisconsin standards are no longer acceptable. Despite inconsistencies for the past two seasons, a return to national viability in the near future doesn’t seem out of the question for the Badgers. McIntosh feels the same way, which is why a change had to be made.
Yet, Chryst was fired for a reason. There were problems festering before the decision to can him was made, and his firing didn’t solve every issue either. A return to prominence is possible, but not until the Badgers solve some unavoidable questions.
Most interim coaches are viewed as placeholders until a real hire is made in the offseason. The remaining games in a season are typically ignored because of the belief the season is “lost” or “over.”
This situation is different. Leonhard has a true shot to win the job. Even if the Badgers aren’t able to contend for anything significant, Leonhard has seven whole games — six remaining — to show Wisconsin decision makers he’s the right candidate.
Leonhard has been linked to greater job openings for years, and it’s not for nothing. He’s among the best and most consistent coordinators in college football. In his five full seasons as coordinator, his defenses finished top five in total defense and top 10 in scoring defense a whopping four times.
Even if he’s not the favorite among Wisconsin decision makers, he has a much higher chance than other candidates based on loyalty to and familiarity with the program. Wisconsin decision makers are suckers for loyalty. Chryst was made Badger head coach after accumulating a mediocre 19-19 record at Pitt. Like Chryst, Leonhard has multiple years of valuable experience as both a player and assistant coach.
If Leonhard doesn’t get the job, he’s likely leaving Madison. The risk of Leonhard finding success elsewhere may be too frightening and realistic for Wisconsin to let happen.
Even though the Badgers have the luxury of a great candidate already on their staff, they should look anywhere and everywhere if it means finding the right person to lead the program. Barry Alvarez didn’t have any Wisconsin experience before he was hired.
“I think I owe it to this program to do a full search when the time is right,” McIntosh told reporters.
Lance Leipold’s name created buzz this season as he brought the previously-disastrous Kansas Jayhawks into national relevance and the AP Poll for the first time since 2013. Leipold is a native of Jefferson, Wisconsin and coached at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for eight seasons. He will be considered for most major job openings — the Badgers should at least look his way, given his performance and Wisconsin roots.
There are other big names like Baylor’s Dave Aranda, who filled the defensive coordinator position for the Badgers in 2013 and 2014, although Baylor may be a good enough job for him to stay.
Regardless of who Wisconsin chooses, they will still likely play a similar brand of football and follow the ground-and-pound philosophy. The Badgers don’t need a massive overhaul. What’s most important is how this next coach handles details: fixing mistakes, staff decisions and any other solvable difference-makers.
Wisconsin's most glaring issue is their lack of talent — especially when compared to rivals like Ohio State or Michigan.
After finishing 16th in the country in recruiting in 2021, their best ranking during the Chryst era, the Badgers slid back down to 44 in 2022 and 55 in the current 2023 class. Wisconsin can’t make any major strides until they’re able to compete with their adversaries on a talent level. During the Chryst era, Wisconsin was 11-18 against teams that finished the year in the AP Poll. The Badgers crumble against better teams.
Wisconsin is known for maximizing their limited recruiting talent. But what if they could maximize four and five-stars instead of just three-stars?
The biggest step forward in recruiting must be actual investment. This starts with those in charge. Wisconsin must improve their operation behind-the-scenes before the on-field product can improve.
In June 2021, Wisconsin director of player personnel Saeed Khalif left to lead recruiting at Michigan State. Khalif began at Wisconsin with four staff members but was eventually only left with two because of budget cuts from the pandemic. In August 2021, Khalif had 12 staff members working for him while Penn State had 10. Wisconsin is competing with programs with scarce resources and personnel — imagine if they were actually on a level playing field.
What’s working in Wisconsin’s favor is the transfer revolution. In the entire 2020-21 cycle, 2,654 players entered the transfer portal. However, that number was surpassed only eight months into the 2021-22 cycle. Prior to this season, it was even reported that of the 131 quarterbacks playing in the FBS, 58 — or 44.3% — entered the transfer portal.
Wisconsin should look to Michigan State in 2021 as a prime example of the transfer portal’s potential. The Spartans went from 7-6 to 11-2 in two seasons from acquiring a few home-run transfers, like running back Kenneth Walker.
Luckily for Wisconsin, there is history of transfers succeeding after moving to Madison. The ultimate example was Russell Wilson in 2011. After being told he was “too small” to play quarterback while at NC State, Wilson transferred to Wisconsin and had the best quarterback season in Badger history before entering the NFL and winning a Super Bowl. The Badgers should carry a poster of 2011 Russell Wilson to every transfer meeting — especially meetings with quarterbacks.
Wisconsin already figured out the hardest part of winning: finding an identity.
The Badgers have looked the same for as long as anybody can remember. They’re going to run the football — a lot. That’s how they win, that’s how they lose.
Some of the best Badgers ever are Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon and Ron Dayne — running backs. They benefited from a revolving door of successful offensive lineman, too — Joe Thomas, Travis Frederick and Ryan Ramczyk, to name a few.
"I've never seen so many big people in all my life as in Wisconsin," Barry Alvarez said not long after arriving in Madison. "You shouldn't have to go far to find linemen."
There are plenty of viable run-oriented teams in college football, but the sport is leaning towards passing. Of the past six national champions, every single starting quarterback was selected in the first or second round of the NFL Draft — except for Stetson Bennett, who’s still in college. Talent is a minimum requirement.
However, a reliance on running may put Wisconsin at risk of growing stale and predictable. A quality quarterback is required to diversify an offense. If there is no aerial threat, teams stack the box and collapse any pre-existing run-game — as the Badgers recently saw against Ohio State and Illinois.
Having a strong identity can be a double-edged sword when it comes to recruiting. Offensive linemen and running backs may see Wisconsin as paradise, whereas quarterbacks and receivers may feel underwhelmed.
Nobody expects Wisconsin to become a pass-heavy program — in fact, they shouldn’t. However, if the Badgers hope to compete with any real college football powers, it cannot be accomplished with a one-dimensional offense.
In 2011, with a competent quarterback in Wilson, the Badgers averaged over 44 points per game, a mark they have yet to surpass. It’s possible to remain a run-oriented program while also having a great quarterback.
Signing current quarterback Graham Mertz, the highest-rated quarterback in Badger history, was a good start. Now, it’s time to ensure the rest of his tenure runs as smoothly as possible, so other quarterbacks can see the potential in Wisconsin’s offense and maybe even follow Mertz’s example. It’s a two way street: Wisconsin must commit to expanding the quarterback position if they hope for a quarterback to commit to them.
Real national viability is not only possible for the Badgers — it’s in reach. There’s no telling how long it will take. However, one thing is certain: the “same old” results won’t cut it.
Donnie Slusher is the sports editor for the Daily Cardinal. He has written multiple breaking news stories, sports columns and an in-depth examination of race in Wisconsin football. Follow Donnie on Twitter at @DonnieSlusher_