How Paul Chryst's termination ended an era for Wisconsin football

The University of Wisconsin football team started the 2022 season with high expectations, but it was clear after just five games that the Badgers had lost their way.
A 34-10 loss to Big Ten rival Illinois — led by former UW coach Bret Bielema — dropped the Badgers to 2-3 on the season and turned up the heat on coach Paul Chryst, who had guided UW to a 15-10 record since the start of the 2020 season.
Few observers expected a change to come as swiftly as it would despite outside calls for a coaching change after the Badgers suffered their most lopsided home defeat since a 48-7 drubbing by Penn State in 2008. But reports the following day pointed to Chryst's termination, with UW athletic director Chris McIntosh confirming the move later that day in a news release that named defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard as interim coach.
Chryst, a Madison native and former UW football player, finished his time as UW coach with a 67-26 record overall and a 43-18 mark in Big Ten play since he was hired in 2015.
The Badgers, who opened the season at No. 18 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, got off to a strong start with a 38-0 shutout of visiting Illinois State before picking up their first loss in Week 2 when Washington State pulled out a 17-14 win over UW at Camp Randall Stadium.
The loss dropped UW from the national rankings, and a 66-7 drubbing of New Mexico State the following week in Madison did little to right the ship as the Badgers prepared for their biggest challenge of the season.
The Badgers then headed to Columbus to take on No. 3 Ohio State, where Chryst's squad proved no match for the Buckeyes, who cruised to a 52-21 victory. That matched the most lopsided defeat of the Chryst era, the drubbing being shown on national television made it worse.
UW was in a 28-0 hole just 16 minutes, 27 seconds into the game, and the poor showing against a Big Ten powerhouse only served to confirm heighten fans' concerns about the program.
Still, Chryst and his players gave the sense after the loss at Ohio State that they believed the Badgers could go on a run and turn around the season. There was plenty of motivation for UW to show its performance the previous week was out of character with Bielema making his return to Madison after going 68-24 in seven seasons as UW’s coach from 2006-2012.
Unfortunately for Chryst and his supporters, the Badgers failed to bounce back from the lopsided loss to the Buckeyes. Illinois dominated UW 34-3 following the opening series of the game with 73,502 fans on hand at Camp Randall Stadium.
McIntosh made the coaching change the following day, placing Leonhard at the helm for the remainder of the regular season and launching a nationwide search for a replacement that ended with the hiring of Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell on Nov. 27, 2022.
Why it was important
McIntosh's decision to change course midseason was a departure for an athletic department not known for abrupt transformations. Not only was Chryst let go midseason, he also became the first UW football coach to be fired since Don Morton in 1989. Barry Alvarez (1990-2005), Bielema (2006-12) and Gary Andersen (2014-15) all left the job on their own accord.
Another reason the timing of the move caught some observers off guard was that Chryst was under contract with the university through the 2026 season and could be due more than $20 million from UW if the contract was terminated.
McIntosh confirmed the day after Chryst was fired that the former coach would get an $11 million buyout as part of a settlement reached the previous day.
As part of the deal, money due to Chryst was to be paid before Feb. 1, 2023, according to McIntosh. Payment of the full amount could have stretched until Chryst's contract expired at the end of January 2027, so the deal saw Chryst get paid much less but in a shorter amount of time.
Polzin: Firing Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst is bold but risky move
McIntosh stressed that the bill was not being footed by Wisconsin taxpayers, with the $11 million in liquidated damages to Chryst being paid out of money in the UW athletic department's Annual Fund held at the UW Foundation.
McIntosh, just 15 months and one day into his tenure as athletic director, made his first major move since taking over for UW legend Barry Alvarez, setting a high bar for future football coaches after firing someone who had won 72% of his games overall and 70.5% in Big Ten play through 93 games.
What they were saying
McIntosh offered few details during a Sunday night news conference on why he made the decision to fire Chryst, but he was clear about his expectations for the team.
“The expectations of our program at Wisconsin are to win championships," McIntosh said, "and I felt it was the right time to make a change to pursue those.”
Wisconsin AD Chris McIntosh shares little detail on why he fired football coach Paul Chryst
McIntosh said he felt the time was right but wouldn't discuss how long he'd been considering moving on from Chryst.
“I think it’s my role to have the position of our program always on my mind,” McIntosh said. “I think we just reached a point where today I felt was the right time to make that decision.”
McIntosh also stressed that his decision wasn't influenced by outside voices like boosters or fans.
“It’s my responsibility to accept feedback that our supporters and our fans want to provide,” McIntosh said. “That’s the part of the job. … I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be necessarily influenced by that. I think my role is to make an objective assessment of where our program is today, and that’s what I did.”
Badgers mega-donor Ted Kellner — an important voice among donors and a part of the leadership team of the name, image and likeness collective supporting UW athletes — said at the time that he wasn’t involved in any attempt to push out Chryst.
“Not in my circles, there was no pressure,” Kellner said. “But I've had no discussion, I've heard no discussion. I've not been asked to participate. And I think if that were true, that I would have heard that. But amongst my peers, we're all pretty substantial donors, I've heard none of that, that there was no pressure on Chris to make any changes."
Leonhard, who first came to Madison in 2001 as an unknown walk-on, took the driver's seat of his alma mater’s program grateful for his mentor's help while also expressing confidence that he was up to the challenge.
Jim Leonhard 'up to that task' of leading Wisconsin football as interim coach
"I had a long relationship with coach Chryst as a player, mentoring me as I got into coaching," Leonhard said at his introductory news conference. "This man hired me with zero coaching experience and named me his coordinator a year later. So very emotional day for myself.
“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. And this place means a ton to myself. And it means so much to everyone who is 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.”
'That's our dog': Wisconsin football players react to Paul Chryst's firing
Chryst has yet to address his termination. But a handful of Badgers players had a chance a few days after the firing to share their take on the move while representing the team at a joint news conference that lasted a little more than 12 minutes.
“I don’t think anyone saw it coming, to be honest with you,” safety John Torchio said. “I don’t think anyone saw it coming and — why not? — because I thought we as players would execute better and perform better. And that’s on us as players. I would answer for all of us that we are all shocked and none of us thought we would be in this situation this season or at this point in the season.”
The players were asked how much responsibility they felt they shared for Chryst losing his job, and quarterback Graham Mertz offered some insight into how he felt after struggling in two-plus seasons as UW's starter.
“You guys all have families, right?” Mertz said to the group of reporters. “Any time you go through something as a family, you all feel responsibility. I don’t think that this should at all fall on any one person’s shoulders.
"I think that’s why this group is upset. I think that’s fair. I think you have to feel that after something happens like that. I think we all have a sense of, 'Oh, I could have done this better.' And I think that’s what we need to turn into fuel to move forward and I think that’s what coach Leonhard has done a great job of, Day 1, coming in and saying is we need to be better and how. … I think, yeah, there is a sense of responsibility, but it’s across the board and we’re all figuring out how to do our job better and we will figure that out.”

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