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Tuesday, November 29, 2022
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Column: It’s Jim’s job to lose

Jim Leonhard has only served three games as the interim head coach for the Wisconsin Badgers. I’ve seen enough.

Is sports betting legal in Wisconsin yet? I’m looking to place an out of state tuition-sized bet that Jim Leonhard will be hired as the Badgers’ permanent coach.

I don’t care that he’s never been a head coach or that he has no track record. I don’t care that he’s only coached three games. I don’t care that those three games were against teams that are bad, disappointing and okay.

I don’t even really care about the games — as long as Leonhard’s Badgers don’t look like a high school team. Once Wisconsin scored four touchdowns in the first half against Northwestern in Leonhard’s first game, I had seen everything I needed to see.

When considering Leonhard’s history with Wisconsin, in addition to the program’s traditional decision-making, his future as head coach seems inevitable.

Leonhard’s history

Jim Leonhard is a Wisconsin lifer. He’s from Tony — a northern Wisconsin town with a population of 101 as of 2021, not a typo.

Leonhard received zero Division I offers and proceeded to walk on at Wisconsin. Four years later, he was a three-time first-team All American and tied the school record for interceptions — cementing himself as one of the best defensive players in Badger history.

After a 10-year NFL career, Leonhard retired at the end of the 2014 season. If hired as Wisconsin’s head coach, he would be the first Badger football head coach to play in the NFL since Harry Stuhldreher, who spent half the 1926 season on the Brooklyn Horsemen and coached Wisconsin from 1936 to 1948. 

In 2016, Leonhard returned to Madison to serve as Paul Chryst’s defensive backs coach before becoming the defensive coordinator a year later. 

Leonhard’s been a fantastic coordinator. That’s ultimately why he’ll get the job. 

In his five full seasons as defensive coordinator, the Badgers rank first in total yards allowed (284.8 yards per game), third in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) and have forced the fourth-most turnovers (112 total) among Power Five schools. He’s accomplishing this with far less recruiting talent than the nation’s other consistently great defenses.

It’s an anomaly that Leonhard is still in Madison at all. His consistency as a coordinator has made him an attractive head coaching candidate for years. He’s had the opportunity to pursue better jobs and hasn’t.

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Leonhard won’t get the job because of loyalty alone. However, his loyalty will be repaid.

Wisconsin’s hiring history

Wisconsin typically leans toward head coaches with program familiarity, although, with some exception. 

Ever since Barry Alvarez stepped down as head football coach and became the athletic director in 2005, three head coaches have been hired. Bret Bielema, who succeeded Alvarez, spent two seasons as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator before getting the job. He spent seven seasons as head coach and led the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowls.

After Bielema left for Arkansas, Wisconsin hired Gary Andersen. Andersen had no Wisconsin familiarity — he left after just two seasons. 

The Badgers then hired Paul Chryst, who had the trifecta of program familiarity — he grew up in Madison, played quarterback for the Badgers and then spent years as an assistant coach under Alvarez and Bielema. Chryst finished with an impressive 67-26 record and seven bowl appearances. Based on recent history alone, a familiar head coach would at least make decision makers feel safe.

Wisconsin’s history of leaning towards familiarity is evident in other sports, too.

The most important basketball coach in school history is Bo Ryan. Ryan was an assistant in Madison from 1976-84, before spending 15 seasons as UW-Platteville’s head coach and then two at UW-Milwaukee. Current coach Greg Gard didn’t go to Madison, but is from Platteville and was an assistant to Ryan before following him.

Women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson played for the Badgers and is the all-time leader in goals scored. He also has familiarity in the form of his father, Bob Johnson — the best hockey coach in Wisconsin’s school history. Men’s hockey coach Tony Granato also played for the Badgers from 1983-87. 

However, some of the exceptions are appealing. 

Perhaps the most important individual in the history of Wisconsin athletics is the aforementioned former football coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez. He revived the Badgers from the ruins and led Wisconsin to their first three Rose Bowl wins — forever changing the football program and UW athletics as a whole. Alvarez didn’t have any Wisconsin familiarity before accepting the head coach job.

Neither did Kelly Sheffield — Wisconsin’s current volleyball coach. Sheffield was the head coach at Albany, then Dayton before getting hired by Wisconsin and leading the Badgers to nine-straight seasons finishing in the Sweet 16 or better and an NCAA championship in 2021.

Ultimately, the big decision comes down to one man: Chris McIntosh. This is only his second season as athletic director, and he’s still a mystery. The decision to fire Paul Chryst in the middle of the season was a move so unlike Wisconsin that I feel hesitant to make any predictions about what McIntosh may do.

The traditional Wisconsin decision would be to hire Leonhard. However, if McIntosh continues on his rogue trajectory, anything is possible. 

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