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Thursday, February 29, 2024
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Wisconsin basketball defeats Penn State 63-60 on Jan. 17, 2022 at the Kohl Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Wisconsin’s coaching crossroads: How many more will see the door?

Last fall, the Badgers made a program-shaking decision with the firing of head football coach Paul Chryst. With the recent disappointment in men’s basketball and hockey, further changes may be imminent.

The 2022-23 sports season has not been kind to the Wisconsin Badgers men’s teams. Once kings atop the Big Ten and college sports landscape, the football, men’s hockey and basketball teams have devolved into bottom-feeders of their respective sports. And with the shocking firing of head football coach Paul Chryst now several months behind us, it seems other coaching changes loom on the horizon. 

One would only have to wind the clock back several years to bask in the storied success that Wisconsin fans and students alike have grown to expect from the Badgers. 

It was under Chryst in 2019 that the Badgers football team finished first in the Big Ten West division, earning themselves a ticket to the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl. It was under Tony Granato that the men’s hockey team secured the 2021 Big Ten Conference regular-season title with a 17-6-1 record. And it was under Greg Gard that the men’s basketball team earned a share of the conference regular season title in both 2020 and 2022.

The three aforementioned coaches have received due praise for their work, with each twice being named the Big Ten Coach of the Year (Chryst in 2016 and 2019, Granato in 2017 and 2021 and Gard in 2020 and 2022). Despite past success and the hardware that fills their trophy cases, they actively sit on the hot seat — or are already burned, in the case of Chryst.    

Coaches are measured by their ability to consistently develop winning teams, a feat that Chryst, Granato and Gard have struggled to maintain.

Following several early years of unprecedented success under Chryst, Wisconsin’s football team crashed back down to earth as his departure drew near. From 2006 to 2010, the Badgers were ranked within Associated Press Poll’s top 10 teams in the nation in 22 separate weeks, but from 2018 to 2022, that number dwindled down to 11. 

Granato and the men’s hockey team haven’t fared much better in recent years, either. Since earning the Big Ten conference regular season title in 2021 — later sustaining early exits from the conference and NCAA tournaments that year — the Badgers have gone 21-43-3 and 10-33-1 in the Big Ten. Over Granato’s seven years coaching, Wisconsin has made the NCAA Tournament just once.

Though Gard has found the most recent success of the three Wisconsin coaches — claiming a share of two of the past three Big Ten titles — the men’s basketball team is currently spiraling out of contention. Losers of eight of their last 11 games in the Big Ten, the Badgers suddenly sit on the outer bubble of the NCAA tournament in danger of missing out on March Madness. Wisconsin last missed the tournament in 2018 and haven’t advanced past the first weekend of play since 2017.

It began with Chryst 

Chryst’s firing in October, albeit unexpected, happened for a reason. During his eight-year tenure, the Badgers ran an antiquated style of football featuring a conservative offense and stout defense. For many years, this kind of play produced solid results, but in a new era where dual-threat quarterbacks and star transfer portal acquisitions reign supreme, Wisconsin floundered. Chryst was given a short leash, seeing the door just five games into the 2022 season after a 2-3 start. 

Under new head coach Luke Fickell and offensive coordinator Phil Longo, the Badgers have already expressed their desire to run an “Air Raid” offense through a mobile pass-slinger. 

The hiring of Fickell has already significantly improved the current state of the football team. With a stronger focus on acquiring talent from the transfer portal, the revamped Badgers have added a plethora of heralded weapons, headlined by Southern Methodist University quarterback transfer Tanner Mordecai and University of Southern California wide receiver CJ Williams — the highest rated wideout recruit to play for Wisconsin in the recruiting ranking era. 

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Wisconsin Athletic Director Chris McIntosh may consider these proven benefits of new blood in the coaching room and implement leadership changes elsewhere.

Granato may be next

On the heels of the disappointing 2021-22 season in which the Badgers finished 10-24-3 — the second worst record in UW’s 59 years of modern-era play — the pressure was mounting for Granato to develop a winning hockey team in 2022-23. Unfortunately, Wisconsin currently sits in the basement of the Big Ten with an overall record of 11-19-0. Much of the blame for this ineptitude lies in the Badgers’ lack of discipline and preparedness — issues that stem directly from poor coaching.

Over the latter half of the Badgers’ active six-game losing streak, they’ve repeatedly committed costly penalties that have buried them into inescapable holes. In their recent three game stretch against Notre Dame and Michigan, the Badgers averaged 19.67 minutes — nearly one-third of the contest — in the penalty box. This in turn translated into power play goals for the opposition, with the Fighting Irish and Wolverines combining for seven power-play goals over these games.

Wisconsin’s lack of preparedness, however, stretches far beyond their recent losses. The Badgers often appear flat-footed in the early portion of contests, only gaining their stride after the other team has jumped out to a commanding lead and the game is out of reach. They’ve tied or been outscored at the end of the first period in 15 of the last 16 games, with their last lead at the conclusion of the opening frame coming on Nov. 19 against Lindenwood.

Due to a lack of improvement and poor results, Granato’s departure from Wisconsin seems imminent. The Badgers may have already found his replacement in Andy Brandt, a former Badger who joined their coaching ranks this past offseason. 

Will Gard succumb to a similar fate?

Much like Chryst, Gard actively runs an outdated style of basketball. Though the coach’s system has delivered success as recently as last year, it’s begun to show significant cracks. 

The Badgers rely upon old-school fundamentals that focus on utilizing most of the shot clock on offense and rushing back to the basket on defense. But as college basketball transitions to an offensive-oriented era more concerned with fastbreaks and star difference-makers, Wisconsin is struggling to keep up. According to TeamRankings, UW ranks a meager 234th in the nation in offensive efficiency. 

The lack of offensive production is, in large part, due to the Badgers’ lack of depth. Wisconsin actively sports the worst 2022 recruiting class in the Big Ten and 112th overall class in the nation, according to 247 Sports. This shortage of incoming talent was displayed once Tyler Wahl and Max Klesmit went down with injuries for three and two games, respectively, leaving Wisconsin with few players who could step up and make shots.

Firing Gard just one year removed from a regular season title feels premature, though McIntosh has already proven to act quickly when results are poor. And with Granato additionally in the midst of an underwhelming season, it seems nobody’s job is safe.

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