Jim Leonhard would have preferred much different circumstances, but the former Wisconsin safety and NFL veteran has been given the opportunity to lead his alma mater’s football program.
How long he has this chance depends on whether he can help Wisconsin salvage a season that’s gone so far off track that it resulted in former coach Paul Chryst’s firing over the weekend. Leonhard acknowledged feeling mixed emotions about his appointment due to his respect for Chryst.
“It’s a dream for myself coming out of that nightmare,” Leonhard said Sunday night at the news conference announcing Chryst’s exit.
Wisconsin (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) opened this season ranked 18th but finds itself in last place in the Big Ten West Division after losing the last two weeks by a combined margin of 55 points, including a 34-10 drubbing at home Saturday against an Illinois team led by former Badgers coach Bret Bielema.
That led to athletic director Chris McIntosh’s midseason decision to fire Chryst, a former Wisconsin player who had gone 67-26 since taking over in 2015. Wisconsin and Chryst have agreed on an $11 million buyout that the University of Wisconsin Foundation will pay.
Selecting Leonhard as interim head coach wasn’t nearly as surprising as the decision to make a change in the first place.
Leonhard, a former walk-on, developed into an All-American at Wisconsin before beginning a 10-year NFL career. He joined Chryst’s staff at Wisconsin in 2016 and became defensive coordinator the following year.
“I really became who I am at the University of Wisconsin and in this football program and around so many people that are still here today,” said Leonhard, who turns 40 on Oct. 27. “To have an opportunity to be in this position is not one that I take lightly.”
The moment was still difficult for Leonhard because it came at Chryst’s expense. Chryst was on the staff during Leonhard’s college playing career. Leonhard noted he had no coaching experience when Chryst put him on Wisconsin’s staff.
Leonhard’s defenses annually have ranked among the nation’s best, though the Badgers have taken a step back this season after replacing eight of their top 10 tacklers. Wisconsin allowed the fewest yards per game and yards per play of any Football Bowl Subdivision team last year.
“I’m confident nobody can do it better at this moment in time than Jim,” McIntosh said.
Leonhard’s immediate task is to boost the spirits of players stunned by their coach’s abrupt exit as they get ready to visit Northwestern (1-4, 1-1) on Saturday.
Wisconsin players conveyed their support of Chryst via social media on Sunday night.
Outside linebacker Nick Herbig tweeted, “Still at a loss 4 words, but one thing I do know is we playing this season for you Coach!! Love you beyond measure." Running back Braelon Allen tweeted, “Anyone who wanted Coach Chryst gone isn’t a part of this team.”
“(For) a majority of these players, a huge determining factor in coming to Wisconsin was coach Chryst,” Leonhard said. “(They’re) very shaken with the news.”
The last seven regular-season games now essentially serve as an audition as Leonhard tries to show he should have the job for keeps.
“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. It's why I haven't left.”
The Badgers believe they can still make something of this year.
They want to avoid their first losing season since a 5-7 finish in 2001. The wide-open nature of the Big Ten West, where every team has at least one conference loss, means they still have a chance of competing for the division title.
First they must get back to playing the way they usually do. Wisconsin hasn’t looked like itself so far, piling up penalties and missing consistent production from the offensive line that the Badgers typically get. Illinois essentially beat Wisconsin at its own game Saturday, outrushing the Badgers 137-2 and collecting five sacks.
Leonhard said he wanted the Badgers to turn things around in part to show their appreciation for Chryst.
“His family and this program mean everything to him,” Leonhard said. “I think it’s our duty, my duty as a coach to get our staff and players to rally behind him and really fulfill everything that he had envisioned for this team, which we still think is out there.”