This isn’t typical Wisconsin behavior.
The firing of a coach mid-season — a consistently successful one at that — is a move often reserved for universities that are “panicking” or “impatient.” The Wisconsin Badgers have been called many things, but those two words were seldom mentioned before this past weekend.
In fact, the last Badger football coach to be fired was Don Morton in 1989 — who won a total of six games in three seasons. The last Badger men’s basketball coach to get the axe was Stan Van Gundy in 1995. Firing coaches is not a part of the Wisconsin way.
There are times when the firing of a head coach signifies that the season is over – that nothing matters until a new coach is hired in the offseason. This isn’t one of those situations.
Interim head coach Jim Leonhard is highly favored in Madison for his familiarity, loyalty and résumé as defensive coordinator for the past five years. The second half of the season is both an opportunity and a test for Leonhard.
Above all, the rest of the season will hopefully provide Badgers decision makers with enough knowledge to know where to go from here.
Firing a coach in the middle of the season is dangerous. It could completely destroy any momentum for a late-year rally. If the coach was well-liked, players could be upset enough to mentally quit on the season. Certain players may even view the decision as the program quitting on the season.
The reactions to the move indicated that at least some players weren’t happy. About an hour after the news broke, star running back Braelon Allen tweeted, “Anyone who wanted Coach Chryst gone isn’t a part of this team.”
There’s no telling who Allen was specifically referring to. If he’s talking about his real teammates, that could be cause for concern. It’s absolutely imperative for Leonhard to retain the favor of his locker room and prevent conflict.
The pressure is ultimately on Leonhard and the coaches to keep the players engaged. This season is only lost if the team decides it is.
Another major concern is the state of the offense after the loss of Chryst – an offensive-minded head coach. Chryst has been the lead offensive decision-maker at Wisconsin since he became head coach in 2015. He was also the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for six years under Bret Bielema prior to coaching at Pitt. His experience will be sorely missed.
Current offensive coordinator and play-caller Bobby Engram was only hired by Chryst this past offseason. This is his first year coordinating and play-calling. It’s not ideal that Engram must command the entire offense with such little experience.
The situation is even more worrisome when considering the state of Wisconsin’s offense this season. In the three games played against Power Five opponents — all losses — the Badgers averaged a mere 15 points and 301.6 total yards of offense per game.
On the bright side for Leonhard and the new-look Badgers, their remaining schedule isn’t notably difficult. There are no more New Mexico States, but there aren’t any Ohio States either. Even the relatively tougher opponents – Purdue, Iowa and Minnesota – are familiar Big Ten West foes.
Leonhard will face an ideal first opponent this weekend in the Northwestern Wildcats. The Wildcats currently sit with the worst total record in the Big Ten at 1-4.
Ultimately, the Badgers wouldn’t make this drastic of a decision if there wasn’t a clear reason. Leonhard received head coach buzz for years. There’s a chance Wisconsin’s decision makers wanted to see a sample of Leonhard’s Badgers before making a firm coaching decision in the offseason.
Some close to Wisconsin, like 247Sports’ Evan Flood, indicated Leonhard is viewed as the run-away favorite to win the position once the season ends. It’s likely his job to lose.
It’s not hard, either, to see why he’s so favored. Leonhard was born and raised in Wisconsin, became one of the greatest defensive players in Badger history and returned to Madison to lead one of the best defenses in college football for years.
In the press conference following the decision, Leonhard told reporters, “[There are] very mixed emotions at this point, but I feel like I can take this opportunity and help this place grow. That's why I came back a number of years ago, and that's why I haven't left and that's the mission that I want to continue forward with our guys.”
If Leonhard ever aspired to be the head coach at Wisconsin, these likely weren’t the circumstances he envisioned. The young coordinator was thrown into the middle of a disappointing season in which his team has a losing record and problems everywhere. It’s up to Leonhard to play the hand he was dealt and try to salvage this head-scratching Wisconsin season.
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_