Wisconsin is making a change.
In a stunning move, Paul Chryst was fired as the Badgers’ head coach, the university announced Sunday night. The news comes a day after Wisconsin was blown out 34-10 at home by Illinois. The Illini are coached by Bret Bielema, who won three Big Ten titles as head coach at Wisconsin from 2010 to 2012.
“After a heartfelt and authentic conversation with Coach Chryst about what is in the long-term best interest of our football program, I have concluded that now is the time for a change in leadership,” Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh said. “Paul is a man of integrity who loves his players. I have great respect and admiration for Paul and the legacy of him and his family at the University of Wisconsin."
With the loss, the Badgers dropped to 2-3 on the season. A week prior, Wisconsin lost 52-21 to Ohio State in an embarrassing showing. The Badgers also have a loss to Washington State this year. The team’s two wins this season came against lackluster competition — Illinois State, an FCS program, and New Mexico State, one of the worst FBS programs.
Chryst, a Madison native, was in his eighth season at Wisconsin, his alma mater. He won a lot of games with the Badgers, accumulating a 67-26 overall record with three division titles. In recent seasons, though, Wisconsin had slid back into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Since the start of the 2020 season, Wisconsin is 9-8 in conference play. Wisconsin has also lost 10 of its past 15 games against ranked opponents.
Before returning to Madison, Chryst spent three seasons as the head coach at Pitt. It was his first head-coaching job following a seven-year stint as the Badgers' offensive coordinator under Bielema. Over Chryst's first five seasons as head coach, Wisconsin went a combined 52-16 with three division titles and three New Year's Six bowl appearances.
However, it has recently become clear that Wisconsin was trending in the wrong direction. The Badgers were competitive in the Big Ten West, but aspirations beyond that seemed far-fetched. The game against Ohio State last week was a clear example of that.
Ohio State jumped out to a 28-0 lead before Wisconsin crossed midfield. And with the slow and plodding way the Badgers play offense, there was no chance for a comeback even with three-quarters of the game still to be played. The Illinois game wasn't much better.
The Badgers have tried to “modernize” their offense to an extent this season, but they still look like a relic of the past with fullbacks and tight ends galore and plenty of under-center runs. Quarterback Graham Mertz has not come close to developing into a player befitting of his lofty recruiting rankings. He was 17-of-32 for 206 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in the loss to Illinois. Even Braelon Allen, the star sophomore running back, couldn't find success against the Illini as he finished the day with a measly 2 yards rushing.
The Badgers have always done more with less, developing under the radar recruits into all-conference players and NFL draft picks. Wisconsin has recruited better than its historical norms in recent years, yet that influx of talent has not elevated the program’s trajectory in any way.
In the end, that fell on Chryst's shoulders.
With Chryst out, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will reportedly move into the role of interim head coach. Leonhard, a longtime NFL player, began his coaching career at Wisconsin as defensive backs coach in 2016 and was elevated to defensive coordinator in 2017. He has held that role ever since and has been regarded as one of the best coordinators in the country and a potential candidate for other head-coaching jobs.
“I have confidence in Jim Leonhard to guide the program for the remainder of the season. There is still a lot of season left to play and I know Jim will do a great job while the program is under his leadership," McIntosh said.
Wisconsin’s next game is on the road against Northwestern on Saturday. They are 9.5-point favorites, according to BetMGM.