Why Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst and what Jim Leonhard, Chris McIntosh say is next

MADISON, WI - SEPTEMBER 10: Wisconsin Badgers Head Coach Paul Chryst watches on the sideline durning a college football game between the Washington State Cougars and the Wisconsin Badgers on September 10th, 2022 at Barry Alvarez field in Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI. (Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
By Jesse Temple
Oct 3, 2022

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MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh pulled up a chair behind a podium in a room underneath Camp Randall Stadium and somberly stared outward while seated next to interim football coach Jim Leonhard. As McIntosh began his introductory remarks during a quickly arranged Sunday night news conference, he made it clear that his decision to fire Paul Chryst earlier in the day was one that came with deep thought and understanding about where Wisconsin has been and where he wants it to go.

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“I’m tasked with making difficult decisions about the future and of the direction of this program,” McIntosh said. “And I felt at this point in time that a change was needed.”

When Wisconsin played its first game of the season 29 days ago, this entire scene seemed unthinkable. Even two days ago, there was plenty of doubt that McIntosh would make an in-season change at a program that had been among the steadiest in the country for so long and hadn’t fired a coach since Don Morton’s exit back in 1989.

But a 34-10 loss at home to Illinois on Saturday represented the final straw for the Chryst era. McIntosh acted swiftly after Wisconsin opened the season 2-3 with losses to all three Power 5 programs it has played. He kept his responses tight and provided little explanation about the specific factors that led to the change, citing only that it wasn’t a game-by-game decision but rather one “based upon where we’re at as a program.”

For Chryst, it wasn’t one thing that led to his downfall but rather the totality of multiple shortcomings, which dropped a proud Wisconsin program down a notch and pushed the Badgers farther away from reaching their goals of competing for Big Ten championships. Certainly, it starts with the record. Wisconsin had been 52-16 during Chryst’s first five seasons as head coach while appearing in three conference title games and qualifying for three New Year’s Six bowl games. But since the beginning of the 2020 season, Wisconsin is 15-10 overall, including 9-8 in the Big Ten, and has failed to win the West.

Expectations among Wisconsin’s fan base and those within the athletic department and football program have changed to the point that not vying for conference titles is considered unacceptable. The Badgers finished 4-3 during a pandemic-shortened 2020 season and 9-4 in 2021, losing to Minnesota in the regular-season finale to prevent them from capturing the West Division.

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Recruiting struggles, lack of quarterback development from a coach who once thrived in that area and an inability for offseason coaching changes to make an impact also likely contributed to Chryst’s demise. McIntosh declined to identify where he believed Wisconsin was lacking or behind as a program.

“I’ve made it a practice of not commenting on the specifics of our program or our personnel or players on it or coaches, what happens in the details,” McIntosh said. “That’s the role of a coach. And so those are the kind of questions that going forward will be directed to Jimmy. I would just comment more holistically on where we’re at. The expectations of our program at Wisconsin are to win championships. I felt that it was time, it was the right time to make a change to pursue those.”

McIntosh said he met with Chryst on Sunday morning for what he described as “a long meeting” and made the change. Players were informed in the evening during a closed-door team meeting that included Chryst, McIntosh and Leonhard. Chryst agreed to a reduced buyout of $11 million, to be paid before Feb. 1, 2023, according to a school official. The Badgers were initially on the hook for roughly $19.5 million for terminating Chryst without cause. The UW Foundation will pay the reduced buyout.

Wisconsin led the FBS in total defense under Jim Leonhard last year. (Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)

Making the move now to give Leonhard a trial run as the interim coach makes sense for many reasons. Leonhard has seven regular-season games to show whether he can help Wisconsin right the ship and potentially earn the full-time job. Leonhard, the 39-year-old former Badgers All-America safety who has been the team’s defensive coordinator since 2017, has spoken often about his love for the university, the football program and the culture. Those were significant factors in why he turned down overtures for major coaching jobs, including the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator role in February 2021.

“I feel like I can take this opportunity and help this place grow,” Leonhard said. “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 for with our guys. Just getting them to continue to understand the trust, the confidence we have in this group of men that we will get this thing going in the right direction, and it’s going to happen sooner than later.”

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Leonhard was too good of a coach to stay in Madison forever and wait to be some type of coach-in-waiting under Chryst. And losing him would have represented a significant blow for the program. By elevating Leonhard, Wisconsin can maintain important program continuity at a critical juncture with a well-respected and successful coach. Leonhard also has shown he has a deep understanding of what Wisconsin needs to excel, both on the field and in recruiting.

McIntosh said he owed it to the program to do a full coaching search “when the time is right” but that the immediate priority was taking care of the players in the program and putting them in the best position to beat Northwestern on Saturday.

Leonhard said he did not yet have a full plan in place for how the coaches would divvy up responsibilities for the next game because the news of Chryst’s departure was so fresh. He indicated the biggest initial challenge would be managing the emotions of his players, who are understandably upset about their head coach being fired. Running back Braelon Allen tweeted: “Anyone who wanted Coach Chryst gone isn’t part of this team.” Outside linebacker Nick Herbig tweeted a picture of Chryst with Herbig and fellow co-captains Graham Mertz and Keeanu Benton at Big Ten media days in July.

“A huge determining factor in coming to Wisconsin is coach Chryst,” Leonhard said. “So, very shaken with the news. We understand that our five-game resume this year is not what we wanted. We have not been playing up to our capabilities. Even before this news, there were some hard conversations that were had today, between coaches, players, among the staff on how do we get it corrected? So I think it’s the emotions, being very open and real about where we currently are and what can we do to win this coming Saturday?”

Leonhard was torn Sunday as he spoke between what this opportunity means for his coaching career and how he has earned the role. He credited Chryst for serving as mentor to him and helping him break into coaching as a defensive backs coach for the Badgers in 2016 just two years removed from him retiring as an NFL player.

“This man hired me with zero coaching experience and named me his coordinator a year later,” Leonhard said. “So, very emotional day for myself. And with that being said, it’s a dream for myself coming out of that nightmare and I want to respect him and his family in all ways. This place means a ton to myself and it means so much to everyone who’s committed to be here with the athletic department, the players, the faculty, the coaching staff.

“We want more. We want better. And that’s my goal is to try to help get us in that direction in a unique time. I’m up to that task, and I’m excited for that journey that we’re about to go on.”

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As the emotion of the moment wears off, the enormity of the task to help restore Wisconsin’s program will become more evident. Now, it’s Leonhard’s turn to see if he can rise to the challenge.

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(Top photo of Paul Chryst: Dan Sanger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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Jesse Temple

Jesse Temple is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the Wisconsin Badgers. He has covered the Badgers beat since 2011 and previously worked for FOX Sports Wisconsin, ESPN.com and Land of 10. Follow Jesse on Twitter @jessetemple