Paul Chryst fired? By Wisconsin? Despite a record of 67-26 and three Big Ten West championships (plus three second-place finishes in seven years?
At first glance, this may look like my alma mater has turned into one of those tail-wags-the-dog football factories where it just means more.
But hang on. This was the right thing to do. And the right time to do it. The short explanation is: You can lose football games. But you cannot lose the fan base.
And that is what Chryst had done.
The slippage in the last three years had crossed a point of no return. Let things fester and the program risks losing everything Barry Alvarez started building 30 years ago.
Back in my student days, the Badgers kept up attendance for their annual 4-7 foray by maintaining a don’t-frisk attitude. Pints were easily brought into Camp Randall Stadium to keep the fan base ``interested.’’
This fall, Wisconsin unveiled a $77.6 million renovation project that involved 6,000 premium end-zone seats. In an 80,000-seat stadium. Where high-school-style bleachers previously were located.
``It’s not just a football game, it’s a happening… and it’s not just a stadium, it’s the neighborhoods, it’s the parking lots, it’s the whole community,’’ Barry Alvarez said in the marketing campaign for CR Future.
In case you were wondering, college football is an incredibly, insatiably big business these days.
Dedicated readers of this column know that I have been suggesting the Badgers’ precipitous decline needs to be addressed.
While Wisconsin was being underwhelmed by Washington State 17-14, I remember thinking that Chryst needed to put mittens on his offensive line to stop the onslaught of holding penalties. Or better yet, either find better blockers or coach them up better.
During that debacle, I texted some fellow Badger alumni that ``They may need to find a way to upgrade the head coaching position. At this point, they are not well coached.’’
One of them sent an article that noted that ``Chryst has lost 24 times in 90 games as Wisconsin’s coach’’ and concluded ``He aim’t going anywhere.’’
That kind of reminded me of back in the 1990s when I wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that Illinois coach Lou Tupper needed to have a winning season or he would be fired. Because he would lose the fan base. Athletic director Ron Guenther emphatically told the Chicago Tribune that Tupper would be back ``No matter what.’’
Let’s just say that Guenther, with whom I enjoyed a warm relationship before and after that season, and I did not get along that fall. Then he fired Tupper—another dedicated good man and football coach who had lost his fan base. Guenther and I got along fine after that.
Just last week, I noted in this space: ``How will Badger Nation react if the Illini pull off a rare victory on Saturday? Even worse, Illinois is now coached by former Badger rising star Bret Bielema.’’
Well, we found out.
A 34-10 loss with two—count ‘em, two!—rushing yards is not the way Wisconsin plays the game.
While it’s easy to feel sympathy for Chryst—a low-keyed, dedicated football man who did a marvelous job for the first five years of his Badger run— everyone knows that coaching major-college football is not civil service. To ease the pain, he’s due for a healthy $11 million buyout. And he’ll undoubtedly find an attractive job as an offensive coordinator next year—if he wants one.
Make no mistake. This was not a panicky knee-jerk decision by second-year athletic director Chris McIntosh, who undoubtedly doesn’t make a move like this without the full support of his predecessor, the legendary Alvarez.
Here’s why letting Chryst go was the right call:
@ The decline since 2019 was precipitous. He was 34-10 in Big Ten his first five years, and 9-8 in the last two-plus. Overall, Chryst dropped from 67-26 in his first five years to 15-10 since the start of 2020.
@ On paper, last year’s 9-4 record may not look bad. But Wisconsin muffed its chance to win the Big Ten West with a feeble 23-13 loss to arch-rival Minnesota in its regular-season finale.
Ask Ohio State fans if they had a good season after losing to Michigan. Or Auburn fans if they lose to Alabama. When Bucky plays Goldy, it does mean more.
The listless Minnesota performance was a shame because Chryst was dealt the dumbest opening schedule imaginable: Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan in the first four games of the season. Go ask Ryan Day or Nick Saban or Kirby Smart to play the equivalent of that start. But wear a helmet if you do.
@ The Badgers recently did not look well prepared. Having a good offensive line is bedrock at Wisconsin, which always seems to have an excellent running back or two. The O line has been slipping for a few years.
@ Chryst either missed on hitching his wagon to ballyhooed quarterback recruit Graham Mertz—or he failed to coach him up.
@ Chryst is not good—at all—at winning press conferences. No shame in not being a showman. But that would have helped.
The weird part about that is, his late father, George, was very skilled at that. When I was covering the Bears in the 1980s. George was the athletic director at UW-Platteville, where the Bears trained. He would open the gym with a flourish for our nightly media basketball pickup games. And even stick around to watch us flail.
THE LEONHARD TRYOUT
It’s sad to see a program like Wisconsin resort to the extreme of firing a good earnest football man five games into a season. But that's what happens in a league that cuts a $7 billion TV deal, a league that has just added USC and UCLA in an effort to turn on television sets from sea to shining sea. When the money ball gets rolling, there’s no stopping it.
From a practical standpoint, this gives Wisconsin a chance to audition interim coach Jim Leonhard, the defensive coordinator/rising star for more than half a season.
I wouldn’t want to put a number on how many games he needs to win—and I don’t think McIntosh/Alvarez will. It’s more about how the team looks. Just ask Paul Chryst.
Then again, based on what teams have done so far, Northwestern and Nebraska look like the most winnable. The rest could be challenging. Or not.
The truth is, there are no more Ohio States. Wisconsin, which was the consensus favorite to win the West, still could do that. A 6-6 would look good at this point. But 5-7 might do it, depending on how it happens.
Then again, somebody strange is going to win the Big Ten West. Why not Wisconsin?
And guess how many ranked teams the Badgers would have to beat to run the table. . . Zero.
McIntosh/Alvarez want Leonhard to succeed. But if they should decide that Leonhard isn’t their guy, this year’s usual suspects—Kansas coach Lance Leipold and Iowa State coach Matt Campbell—would be high on the list.
@ Leipold, a Jefferson, Wis., native, was a world-beater at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater before doing great work at Buffalo and Kansas. At 58, though, he might be on the old side.
@ Campbell, Everybody’s Favorite Candidate for Every Job, fits the Midwestern profile and has had great success at Toledo and Iowa State. And he’s only 42. He will be a good fit wherever he goes—unless he stays put in Ames.
@ Washington State coach Jake Dickert, 39, who just beat the Badgers, is from Oconto, Wis., and played and coached at Wisconsin-Stevens Point before moving up the coaching ladder. He’s a rising star. He may not want to leave the Palouse. Then again, having been to the Palouse, I can tell you, it’s beautiful, but Madison could be awfully enticing.
@ Wisconsin is a good enough job to attract the attention of many others if it shows interest in them. That includes two other former Wisconsin defensive coordinators, Baylor head coach Dave Aranda and N.C. State coach Dave Doeren. But those are reaches at this point, along with a pair of usual suspects, Bill O’Brien and Matt Rhule, two accomplished coaches who will make a lot of candidate lists.
The Badger job is Jim Leonhard’s to lose. That’s a big reason why it made sense to dump Chryst. But far from the biggest reason. Abrupt as this move appears, Wisconsin has been pointing toward it for a while, given the way the program had declined. And the corporate heights Big Ten football has reached.