New Wisconsin Badgers interim head coach Jim Leonhard hopes to honor Paul Chryst through team's play

MADISON – This was the definition of bittersweet.

Sunday evening Jim Leonhard was handed a golden opportunity when he was named the interim coach of the University of Wisconsin football program. But in order to get the job, the man who gave him his start in the business had to be fired.

The gratitude and respect the 39-year-old has for Paul Chryst runs deep. It was Chryst who gave Leonhard his first coaching job and then a year later made him defensive coordinator despite his lack of experience.

And it was Chryst, who even after he was relieved of his duties, continued to support his protégé, something Leonhard said the former coach did when he was allowed to meet with the team one final time Sunday evening.

“He has a ton of confidence in me,” Leonhard said during a press conference Sunday night at Camp Randall Stadium. “He made that clear when he hired me and he made that clear today in his message.”

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Leonhard takes over a team that is 2-3 overall with an 0-2 mark in the Big Ten. UW has lost three of its last four contests with the average margin of defeat 27.5 points against the Big Ten.

Leonhard said the best way to honor Chryst is to meet the expectations that he set for the team this season.

Part of the initial challenge of helping the team reach those marks will be to help the players deal with the emotion of losing their coach. Co-captain Nick Herbig and running back Braelon Allen were among those who issued emotional tweets about the change.

“The majority of these players, a huge determining factor in them coming to Wisconsin is Coach Chryst, so they’re very shaken with the news,” Leonhard said. “We understand that our five-game resume is not what we wanted.

"We have not been playing up to our capabilities and even before this news there were some hard conversations that were had today between coaches, players, among the staff on how do we get it corrected.”

Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is shown before their game against Illinois State Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is shown before their game against Illinois State Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

Leonhard’s rise to the interim head coaching role started 21 years ago when he arrived on campus as a walk-on from Flambeau. When he was done, he was three-time All-American who would go on to play 10 seasons in the NFL despite being an undrafted player.

At Wisconsin, his defenses have ranked in the top five of scoring and total defense five times in the five-plus seasons he has served as defensive coordinator. He turned down several opportunities to leave UW over the years. Last year, the Green Bay Packers approached him about its defensive coordinator job.

“I feel like I can take this opportunity and help this place grow and that is why I came back a number of years ago,” he said. “That is why I haven’t left and that is the mission I want to continue forward with our guys.”

Leonard’s arrival on campus came two years after UW Director of Athletics Chris McIntosh wrapped up his All-American career with the Badgers.

“I don’t know if I can’t say anything about Jim that hasn’t already been well documented throughout the years,” McIntosh said. “Obviously the fit Jim brings to this program, his competitiveness, his work ethic. Those are all gimmies. Clearly his ability to lead and his ability to teach. We’re fortunate to have Jimmy on staff (and) that we’re in a position that we can trust this level of responsibility an leadership to someone like Jimmy.”

Getting Wisconsin football back to its winning ways is Job 1 for Leonhard, but to make that happen there are some staff decisions he’ll have to make. Will he continue to coordinate the defense and if he does, will he call plays on gameday?

Handling the coordinator and head coach roles together isn’t impossible. Before taking on a CEO role this season, Chryst was the offensive coordinator.

If Leonhard does pass off any of his coordinator duties, Bobby April, who is the second-longest tenured defensive coach and serves as the team’s run-game coordinator, could be called upon to help.  Inside linebackers coach Mark D’Onofrio, who is in his first season at UW, was a defensive coordinator at Temple, Miami and Houston.

Nothing has been settled yet.

“We’re working through a lot of possible situations,” Leonhard said. “Obviously I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure the defensive plan is exactly where it needs to be for this week whether I’m calling it or handing off the responsibilities on game day. We’re not there yet.”

McIntosh said he plans to have a national search for a coach before making a permanent hire, but Leonhard has plenty of time to prove he is the right person for the job.

Wisconsin is about to hit the meat of its West Division schedule in the Big Ten. The Badgers are 0-1 in division games and have seven games remaining in the regular season.

“It’s a 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 (Chryst) and his family in all ways,” Leonhard said.

“This place means a ton to myself and it means so much to everyone who is committed to being here with the athletic department, the players, the faculty and the coaching staff. We want more, we want better and that’s my goal, to help get us in that direction in a unique time.”

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Opportunity is bittersweet for Badgers interim coach Jim Leonhard