Jim Leonhard can be Wisconsin's Dabo Swinney, but it's going to cost the Badgers
Jim Leonhard has assumed the role of interim head coach for Wisconsin following the news of Paul Chryst’s firing. It was an emotional Sunday for everyone involved, including Leonhard, a former Badger who was given his coaching start by Chryst in 2016.
Now, Leonhard steps to the helm for the final 7 games of the 2022 season and has a great shot to prove he’s the right man to move the Wisconsin program forward. And if immediate reports on the situation are true, all signs are pointing to Leonhard eventually landing the permanent gig in Madison.
That news is equal parts unsurprising and bold for a program that just fired a recently extended head coach with a 72% winning percentage and a 6-1 record in the postseason. Make no mistake about it: Wisconsin AD Chris McIntosh is intent on leaving his mark on the Badgers in the post-Barry Alvarez era and appears to be approaching the situation with confidence.
However, remember the wise words of Vikram from The Office. “Confidence is the food of the wise man but the liquor of the fool.” McIntosh is undoubtedly sold on moving forward post-Chryst, but that doesn’t change the magnitude of the decision ahead of him.
With that being said, how much confidence does it take to extend a permanent head coaching job to a (soon-to-be) 40-year-old coach with exactly 7 years of coaching experience and zero time spent as a head coach? That’s not to say McIntosh should have a reason not to be confident in Leonhard.
The DC turned interim head coach is a rising name in the coaching ranks and is likely to be in the mix for multiple Power 5 openings this offseason. But leading a high-caliber B1G program as your first head coaching job? That’s a different conversation altogether.
In the end, the Badgers can make Leonhard as the head coach work and work well. That is if the program is ready to invest heavily around Leonhard. And if Leonhard is the route McIntosh decides to go, he has a national championship-winning model to the south to try and emulate.
Rewind the clock to 2008. In the middle of a lackluster season, a notable head coach resigns from his post after a 3-3 start to the season.
At the time of his departure, the long-time head coach had 72 wins in 10 seasons and an overall 62% winning rate with the program. In the aftermath, a 39-year-old position coach was handed the interim reins for the remainder of the season.
The coach in question was Tommy Bowden, resigning at Clemson after some strong seasons but having failed to get over the hump of high expectations. His replacement was a young WRs coach and assistant head coach with zero coordinator experience in Dabo Swinney.
How has that worked out for the Tigers? In case you’ve been under a rock for the last decade, Swinney has 155 wins in 15 years, an 81% win percentage, 2 national titles, 7 ACC titles and a host of College Football Playoff appearances.
If Wisconsin is looking for proof Leonhard can work as a head coach — and a model to emulate in Madison — it’s Clemson’s under Swinney.
It would not be easy, but it is possible if the program is willing to go all in with Leonhard in two areas: time and money.
What would it take for the Badgers?
There’s no magic fix to get Wisconsin back to being a consistently elite program. The first issue is the monetary investment, though that should not be a big concern considering the Badgers are giving Chryst $11 million to walk away.
Going back to the Clemson comparison, the big investment for Wisconsin needs to be in the assistant coaching staff for Leonhard. For example, Swinney’s first staff of assistants at Clemson in 2009 included Billy Napier at OC, Kevin Steele at DC and Jeff Scott at WRs coach and recruiting coordinator.
The names on that list should sound familiar for a number of reasons, with Steele posting a long and productive coaching career on the defensive side of the ball. Napier and Scott have since landed head coaching gigs, with Napier’s rise to landing the Florida job particularly impressive.
However, that first staff for Swinney was far from flawless. Napier was eventually replaced after a lackluster offensive season and Steele was eventually fired after the 2011 season.
How did Clemson respond? By signing a new staff to a then program-record pool of $6.1 million for the 2012 season. (By comparison, Wisconsin’s assistants were reported to make just north of $5 million for 2022.)That 2012 Clemson staff included Chad Morris in his second season as OC, Tony Elliott in his second season as RB coach and Brent Venables in his first season as DC for the Tigers.
That coaching staff for Clemson in 2012 was also significant in another area. Eight of the assistants from that 2012 team were also a part of Clemson’s first national title under Swinney in 2016.
Compiling a staff like that to work alongside Leonhard will not be cheap, but it’s an investment the Badgers should make if McIntosh maintains the goal in Madison is to win championships.
Like most things in life, though, money is only one piece of the equation. Finding the right pieces will take some time, and the shortcomings of Swinney’s first staff at Clemson help illustrate that point.
For a proud program like Wisconsin that averaged 10 wins a season as recently as 2014-19, the temptation is there to try and strike the quick turnaround. That is always a possibility, but going with Leonhard — even as the right man for the job — will require the patience of a long rebuild.
Consider that Swinney’s start at Clemson consisted of a 4-3 record as the interim coach and a 6-win season in his second full year with the program. Swinney did hit 10 wins in his third season at the helm, but that squad barely finished as a top-25 team.
In reality, Swinney’s first meaningful results did not come until 2013. That is when Swinney led the team to a BCS bowl and top-10 finish during his 5th season leading the Tigers.
Clemson would fall back outside the top 10 in 2014 before exploding for top-4 finishes in 6 straight seasons from 2015-20.
Even for the juggernaut that the Tigers have become under Swinney, the early days of his tenure required some patience from the administration and the fanbase. A Jim Leonhard era in Madison would be no different.
Would Jim Leonhard as head coach ultimately work?
At the end of the day, the success or failure of the next head coach will boil down to wins and losses. If there was any doubt, go look at Chryst’s 72% winning percentage while being shown the door.
There really is no way to guarantee anything, with or without Leonhard. And in reality, Wisconsin’s shortlist of candidates should feature two names: Leonhard and Kansas head coach Lance Leipold.
Both are Wisconsin natives, and both would be cultural fits in Madison. In terms of money, the end result for both coaches would likely be the same. Either the Badgers pay a hefty sum to pry Leipold out of Kansas (and away from other competitors), or they stick with the former Badgers star and invest heavily in his support staff.
So then, the question becomes: Who would fans rather have moving forward? There’s not really a wrong answer, but one thing is clear if the administration does go with Leonhard.
Bite the bullet and make an actual investment in Leonhard’s support staff in Madison. Wisconsin will only wind up selling itself short — and regretting it — if Leonhard doesn’t get a real shot to duplicate the model we’ve witnessed at Clemson.