Wisconsin football: Jim Leonhard's dominant debut makes a statement
On Oct. 13, 2008, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden walked into athletic director Terry Don Phillips’ office and resigned. Six games into the season, the Tigers were 3-3. Bowden was tired of the same old story week after week and needed a fresh start.
Phillips turned to wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney for answers. Beloved by players and a highly-touted recruiter, Swinney was expected to fix the ship for the remainder of the season while Phillips would look for the Tigers’ next coach.
By December, Phillips removed the interim title from Swinney’s name. Fourteen years, 7 ACC titles and 2 national championships later, Clemson has no reason to look back.
Maybe that’s what Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh needs to do with Jim Leonhard. One game into a new era of Wisconsin football, things are on the come-up.
Paul Chryst likely would have led Wisconsin to a victory over Northwestern on Saturday at Ryan Field. The Wildcats are a Scott Frost-less Nebraska away from being winless in 2022. And outside of a few highlight throws from Ryan Hilinski, can anyone find a positive to Northwestern’s season?
That’s not the point. Chryst’s firing last Sunday marked a warranted change needed in Madison. Sure, Chryst will go down as one of the all-time winningest coaches in program history. He’ll always be a Badger thanks to the degree that likely hangs in his home office.
Again, that’s not the point. The Badgers not only are one of the more conservative athletic programs among Power 5 programs, but their offense had gone from serviceable to stale. It’s supposed to be easy winning the B1G West with the colossal amount of talent found on the Badgers’ sideline.
Despite sitting at 3-3, Wisconsin will need a string of events to unfold if it hopes to head back to Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time since 2019.
Maybe Leonhard provides that. He proved Saturday that he’s more than capable of leading a program with his play-calling as well as his charisma. On more than 1 occasion, quarterback Graham Mertz looked the part of a prolific passer, something fans in Madison have been waiting for since he touched down on campus in 2019.
Mertz’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Skyler Bell? A beauty. His 52-yard deep shot to Chimere Dike? A highlight that was set to hit B1G Network later Saturday night. The 21-yard floater to Dike again? Where has this Mertz been over the last 3 seasons?
Perhaps there was more to Chryst’s firing than is known.
Leonhard fits the criteria of what the Badgers are looking for in a coach. He’s a native of Wisconsin, born and bred in Tony. He’s a Badger through and through, starring as the team’s strong safety in the early 2000s en route to 3 All-America honors.
And he’s loyal. He sticks with you like lint between your toes even after a long hot shower. In recent years, Wisconsin’s defense has been one of college football’s finest. Because of that, coaches have called in hopes of persuading Leonhard to leave his second home.
The SEC wanted him. He said no. Other B1G programs wanted him. He passed. Last year, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur tried to convince Leonhard to make the 135-mile move north and coach in the pros. Again, he said he wasn’t interested.
Leonhard has stayed put with the B1G West program not only due to loyalty but also opportunity. Sooner or later, McIntosh likely was going to pull the trigger on Chryst, thus opening the door for someone to take his place.
Someone like Leonhard.
Right now, McIntosh is giving Leonhard a 7-game audition to be like Swinney at Clemson. After winning Game 1 by a 42-7 count, he passing with flying colors.
Creating a new culture in Madison?
If Wisconsin fails to make it back to Indy this season, it’s fine. The term “there’s always next year” might sound like a call for help, but Badgers’ fans should be looking for stability as the top priority entering 2023. Soon enough, UCLA and USC will be joining the B1G conversation, thus upping the competition.
The last thing Wisconsin needs is the wrong person leading its program out of the tunnel on Saturdays.
As Chryst took the weekend off for the first time in a while, the Badgers took the Wildcats to the woodshed. After allowing 86 points to Ohio State and Illinois, Wisconsin’s defense pitched a shutout before allowing Northwestern backup quarterback Brendan Sullivan to connect with Anthony Tyus III in the fourth quarter. The Badgers caused 3 turnovers, 1 of which was capped off by a scoring drive from Mertz.
Mertz threw for 299 yards and 5 touchdowns. Braelon Allen rushed for 135 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Most of all, the Badgers didn’t cough up the ball, a problem for the program during its 3 losses this season.
Wisconsin prevailed for just the 2nd time in its last 8 games at Ryan Field. The Badgers played 60 minutes of competitive football. They showed that while they might be down, they’re far from out.
Step 1 for Leonhard: check.
McIntosh might be waiting to see if Leonhard can duplicate his success against programs like Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. He might need a bit more than just a road win over a division weakling before removing the interim tag.
Then again, Phillips likely has yet to regret his decision of promoting Swinney 14 years ago. Will McIntosh follow suit?