The Wisconsin Badgers made headlines for their embarrassing 34-10 loss to the Illinois Fighting Illini in Week 5, but what succeeded the game was a move that many questioned, yet didn’t truly anticipate: the firing of longtime head coach Paul Chryst.
Chryst was the embodiment of a Wisconsin head coach, with ties to the state running deep throughout his life.
The 56-year-old coach grew up in Wisconsin and played college football for the Badgers before shifting to coaching.
After a one-year stint with the Badgers in 2002 as their tight ends coach and a seven-year stint as their offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2011, Chryst returned to Madison to rescue the Badgers following the unpredictable departure of head coach Gary Andersen, who bolted to be the head coach of the Oregon State Beavers just four days after losing in the Big Ten Championship.
Fast forward seven years, Chryst leaves Wisconsin with a fantastic 67-26 record, but a career marred by inconsistencies and the inability to adjust to the modern-day era of college football.
When questioning the firing of Chryst, many point to that incredible record. In reality, it needs to be broken up into two eras: 2015 to 2019 and 2020 to 2022.
In the former portion, Chryst went 52-16, including four finishes inside the Top 25, and made three appearances in the Big Ten Championship, including a 28-27 loss in the Rose Bowl in 2019.
However, in the latter portion, Chryst went a mediocre 15-10, with the majority of Wisconsin’s struggles coming in his own areas of expertise: offensive play calling, game-planning and quarterback development.
In a way, while Chryst proved himself in the early years of his head coaching era, his career would be tied to the development of quarterback Graham Mertz, whom the now 56-year-old head coach trusted over incumbent starter Jack Coan after one impressive game.
However, following a strong initial impression, Mertz has been subpar, throwing just 27 touchdowns to 21 interceptions while hovering around a 60% completion rate and never eclipsing over 2,000 yards in a season.
In fact, due to an inherent lack of trust in Mertz, Chryst’s offensive game plan began to lean further towards running the football, as the Badgers increased their usage of the running game from 57.79% in 2020 to 63.98% in 2021 — ranking fifth in the NCAA.
While Wisconsin had a strong rushing attack, Chryst’s game plan and play calling proved to be predictable and stale.
When Minnesota figured out how to stop the run during the most important game of last season, the Badgers could muster only 13 points. Mertz completed just 21/38 passes for 171 yards and an interception in an ugly offensive performance.
Fast-forward to the 2022 season, and the Badgers had to recoup offensively after losing top targets Danny Davis, Jake Ferguson and Kendric Pryor to the NFL. This means several players on offense had to step up.
Chryst made a bold hiring, making former Baltimore Ravens tight ends coach Bobby Engram, who coached with the then-head coach at Pittsburgh, his offensive coordinator, despite the latter never calling plays before.
Engram had a good pedigree, having come from a Ravens offense similar to that of Wisconsin’s – featuring a run-heavy approach focused on two-tight end sets with significant play-action.
However, the lack of experience has proven to be significant, as the offense has been as stale as ever five games in. Engram has yet to compile a game plan that worked for the entirety of a game, nor has he been able to make in-game adjustments.
Following one of the worst losses of the Chryst era, it seemed as if the team was in a place they’d never been before, which the players acknowledged.
Team captain Nick Herbig, who's been known for his calmness at the podium as well as his lack of words, admitted this was likely the most frustrating time since he’d been with the program.
“There’ve been frustrating times, but yeah, [this moment] is really frustrating,” Herbig said when asked if the moment following Wisconsin’s Week 5 loss was the most frustrating period of time since he joined the program.
And then came the final blow — which was most shocking because it didn’t adhere to Wisconsin standards: the firing of Paul Chryst.
Was the decision justified?
Chryst became the first Wisconsin head coach to be fired in 33 years, as consistency has been the motto for the Badgers — even while stuck in the limbo between greatness and mediocrity.
With the circumstances and aggression behind the move, the true question that must be answered is: Was firing Paul Chryst the right move for Wisconsin?
When questioning the firing, you have to delve past the inconsistencies Chryst brought as a head coach. We must also consider the implications this type of move has on a program as a whole — which involves the players and coaching staff, as well as recruiting and corralling everybody together to move forward after their leader is no longer present.
New athletic director Chris McIntosh appointed defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard as the interim head coach, providing him the opportunity after the highly-touted 38-year-old declined several opportunities in the past, including the defensive coordinator position for the Green Bay Packers.
Stepping into the light, Leonhard will be tasked to guide the program past what was perhaps its lowest moment over the past few seasons, while keeping recruiting intact with a questionable staff, as well as managing the game from a different perspective.
In a way, it’s an impossible task for Leonhard to accomplish. In what appears to be a seven-game trial period, it will be difficult to truly visualize whether the former Wisconsin walk-on is the proper fit for the job.
It’s clear Wisconsin is looking to be aggressive under McIntosh, who showed his lack of tolerance for mediocrity with this midseason firing. This aggression could result in a different head coach after the season if he believes Leonhard didn’t prove enough in his short tenure as the interim.
If so, Wisconsin must improve in several factors, beginning with recruiting, where they stalled nationally during the Paul Chryst era.
Over the past eight recruiting classes, Wisconsin has ranked in the top 20 nationally just once. This occurred in 2021.
However, the program couldn’t build on its momentum, sliding back to 41st in 2022, which has only worsened for the 2023 class, as Wisconsin currently ranks 56th.
While Chryst and his coaching staff were known to get the most out of their players, hence the 67-26 record, compiling weaker recruiting classes can be a considerable factor as to why Wisconsin has failed to get over this hump following the Barry Alvarez era.
Under Leonhard, the Badgers need to institute a change in capacity, especially in the new era of NIL — making recruiting much more competitive and aggressive.
Additionally, with a defensive-minded head coach, it stands to see how Wisconsin improves on the offensive side, which has been their problem for the last three seasons. There’s no clear-cut immediate fix if offensive coordinator Bobby Engram continues to operate in his current fashion.
Ultimately, what made Chryst so dependable as a head coach was his experience — not only as a play-caller, but as a decision-maker.
With Leonhard at the helm, there’s now an inherent lack of experience in that realm, which could prove costly as it has for many first-year head coaches.
Now, Leonhard has his plate full with pressure mounting at a low point for the program, and his results could ultimately make or break his chances of being the full-time head coach with a new regime.
Overall, there are several variables that will ultimately decide whether firing Paul Chryst, who represented the epitome of stability for the program, was the correct decision, but it certainly was an aggressive move that will now require results.