We’re just a few days removed one of the more surprising moves we’ll see during this year’s college football coaching carousel as the Wisconsin Badgers fired head coach Paul Chryst on Sunday.
A native of Madison, WI, and former quarterback for the Badgers, Chryst took over for his alma mater in 2015 and maintained UW’s position as the resident power of the Big Ten West. Under his leadership for seven-and-a-half seasons, Wisconsin won the division three times and earned three trips to New Year’s Six bowl games.
While successful, the Badgers could never get over on their Big Ten East counterparts to win the league title, establishing a clear ceiling for Chryst’s program. Eventually, their grip on the western edge of the conference began to slip, posting a 4-3 record during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, a 9-4 mark in 2021, and a 2-3 record to start this season. When it became apparent that border rivals like Minnesota and Illinois (coached by former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema) were starting to gain ground, the UW brass made the aggressive and bold decision to part ways with the head coach on Sunday.
That now leaves the question of where the program will turn to next. Wisconsin has been one of the winningest programs in the Big Ten over the last 30 years and the truck loads of money they are about to receive from the conference’s new media deal will make the job even more attractive. There’s plenty of candidates that could potentially be roaming the sidelines of Camp Randall Stadium and we’ll go over some of them below.
Wisconsin head coaching candidates
Since the news of Chryst’s ouster dropped on Sunday, the name that immediately jumped off many tongues was Kansas head coach Lance Leipold. The Jayhawks head man has performed a mini-miracle in Lawrence, KS, in just a short amount of time. In just a season-and-a-half, he has taken one of the most moribund programs in the Power Five and has them at 5-0 and ranked in the AP poll at the time of this writing. But his credentials go far deeper than that.
Leipold is a native of Jefferson, WI, and established himself by winning six Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater before having consistent success on the D1 level at Buffalo. Getting Leipold to come home and take over the flagship program of his home state would be a no brainer for UW and they’d have the money to overpower the inevitable extension Kansas will offer him.
If the Badgers want to go with another Wisconsin-bred coaching candidate, they could go with the guy who is in charge right now in interim head coach/defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.
Similar to Chryst, Leonhard has the credentials as a former UW player from the state of Wisconsin and at 39, he is one of the fast rising defensive minds in college football. Leonhard will get an opportunity to audition on the job as he runs the ship for the Badgers’ remaining seven games. If he can manage the program well and produce a winning record during that stretch, he may very well have that interim tag removed at the end of the season.
This is your obligatory Luke Fickell mention anytime a major job in the midwest comes open. The Cincinnati head coach is coming off a run to the College Football Playoff and has the Bearcats in a position to claim their third straight AAC Championship before jumping to the Big 12 next season.
Fickell has already had success recruiting the Midwest and the Cincinnati area could prove to be a valuable pipeline for Wisconsin should they tab Fickell as the next man. As for Fickell himself, he’s comfortable where he is in his home state of Ohio but there’s always the possibility that he wants a bigger challenge. Making a jump to the Big Ten would provide that challenge.
Matt Campbell has squeezed blood from a turnip in maintaining consistency through his six-and-a-half seasons at Iowa State. His 45-36 record in Ames, IA, may not jump off the page initially until you consider that he’s taken the Cyclones to a bowl for five straight years, a feat that has never been accomplished in the history of the program.
Similar to Fickell, Campbell may have already hit his ceiling at his current job and it may be time for a bigger challenge. He’ll be on the radar for Nebraska but Madison, WI, could also be a potential landing spot.
We round out this list with another Midwesterner who could be a dark horse candidate for the job. Dave Doeren has maintained consistency in his nine-and-a-half seasons at NC State, posting a 68-50 record, taking them to seven bowl games, and creating a quiet NFL factory with the number of prospects he’s sent to the pros. With the presence of Clemson and Florida State in his own division however, there is clear ceiling on the heights he can achieve in Raleigh, NC.
The Wisconsin connection here is that Doeren served as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator from 2006-2010. He was able to parlay that into his first head coaching gig at Northern Illinois, which led to his current role at NC State. It would be a true full circle moment if the Badgers called him back to Madison, WI, to take over.