MADISON – Paul Chryst is out as Wisconsin’s head football coach.
UW officials announced Sunday that Chryst has been removed five games into his eighth season as the Badgers' head coach.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, 39, was named interim head coach.
“My job is to make sure the program is heading in the right direction,” UW athletic director Chris McIntosh said Sunday. “This was by no means a decision as the result of one game – yesterday.
“But I felt a change in leadership was needed right now... The expectations at Wisconsin are to win championships and I felt it was the right time to make a change to pursue those."
UW officials plan to hold a search for a full-time head coach after the season is over. However, sources close to the program have indicated the hope is Leonhard shows so much promise that he becomes the clear choice.
"I think I owe it to this program to do a full search when the time is right," McIntosh said. "That topic, though, is not today's priority.
"Today's priority is to take care of the kids in this program. And the priority this week is to beat Northwestern."
Wisconsin Athletic Director Chris McIntosh had 'difficult meeting' with Paul Chryst Sunday morning
McIntosh explained he concluded early Sunday he needed to make a change and then met with Chryst to share his decision.
“Had a long meeting with Paul,” he said. “It would be impossible for me to have any more respect for the man.
“Difficult meeting. I may be the only athletic director in the country who has a head coach who 100% cares about the long-term health and direction of our program.
“It is impossible for me to have more respect for the guy. His priority is 100% the kids on his team.
“So, it is a hard night for everybody.”
Chryst's firing comes on heels of Wisconsin's blowout loss to Illinois
The move came less than 24 hours after UW suffered a humbling 34-10 home loss to Illinois.
That dropped UW to 0-2 in the Big Ten and 2-3 overall. The Badgers are set to face Northwestern (1-4, 1-1) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Evanston, Illinois.
"We're fortunate to have coach Leonhard here on our staff," McIntosh said. "Confident he can lead this team through the balance of this season.
"That's our priority right now. Our priority is to make sure these kids get the most out of this season and out of their experience at Wisconsin."
Chryst, 56, leaves UW with a 43-18 Big Ten mark and 67-26 overall. UW was 6-1 in bowl games under Chryst.
He entered the season with a 43-16 Big Ten record and a 65-23 overall mark. UW won West Division titles in 2016, 2017 and 2019 but lost in the league title game each time.
Jim Leonhard has led the Wisconsin Badgers defense since 2017
Leonhard, an All-American safety at UW, played 10 seasons in the NFL before returning to UW as secondary coach in 2016.
He was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2017 and has held that position for the last five-plus seasons.
From 2017 through last season, UW finished among the top five nationally in total defense and top 10 in scoring defense four times.
During that time, UW was third in scoring defense (17.3 points per game), first in total yards allowed (284.8 yards per game), first in pass efficiency defense (110.5 rating), third in rushing defense (103.4 ypg) and first third-down defense (30.5% conversion rate).
“Obviously, a very emotional day for myself and our staff and our players," said Leonhard, who noted he isn't sure whether he will continue calling the defensive plays in his new role. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for coach Chryst and everything he has done for this program. His family and this program mean everything to him.
"It is our duty – my duty as a coach – to get our staff and players to rally behind him and really fulfill everything he had envisioned for this team, which we still think is out there.
"I had a long relationship with coach Chryst. As a player, mentoring me as I got into coaching. This man hired me with zero coaching experience and named me his coordinator a year later."
Green Bay Packers were previously interested in Leonhard
Leonhard has turned down several job opportunities over the years and last year was approached by the Packers in their search for a new defensive coordinator.
Leonhard chose to remain at UW and the Packers eventually hired Joe Barry.
More recently, Leonhard’s name was linked to an opening at Nebraska.
“I mean, I understand it,” Leonhard said when asked about the Nebraska opening. “I don't really pay too much attention. I get a lot of texts and calls about it. It's funny. There were many verified, kind of random sources out there that I had taken jobs.
“It was pretty funny to see. I have talked about it a lot. I am comfortable here. I am not saying this is the place I'll be for the rest of my life, but I love this place. I love what we're doing. I like the guys and who I am coaching with. I am not in a rush to make the decisions that some people think I am.”
Chryst was asked after the loss to Illinois if his confidence had been shaken.
"I think that we've got to do a good job," he said. "When you take a look at everything, and you're always going to look at everything. How are we coaching them? What are we doing?
"I think...we've just got to play better."
Chryst received a new contract in 2021 only to be fired a year later
UW officials last October gave Chryst a new contract which included a total compensation package of $5.25 million per year. The buyout was approximately $19 million but McIntosh said Sunday he and Chryst negotiated a figure significantly less than that. He added the details would be revealed at a later date.
Chryst's plan after the loss to the Illini was to get his team ready for a critical road game against Northwestern this week. As of early Sunday, his regularly scheduled Monday press conference was on.
That changed Sunday night.
Chryst was out; Leonhard was in.
Chryst, McIntosh and Leonhard met with the players. McIntosh wanted Chryst to be able to break the news to the players face to face and let them see Leonhard was taking over.
"I goes without saying — I mentioned it earlier — it was a tough day for us all, given how much we all care for and how much we love coach Chryst," McIntosh said. "His players are first on that list in terms of how much they care for him...
"I'm really, really thankful to have been able to work side by side with coach Chryst through some incredibly exhilarating moments and some tough ones like today. We'll push forward and we'll push forward this season under coach Leonhard's leadership and our focus will be to make the most of this season for our team."
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Paul Chryst fired as Wisconsin Badgers football head coach