Who will replace Paul Chryst at Wisconsin? Here are 10 candidates

Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh made a bold decision Sunday when he decided to fire head coach Paul Chryst. The move came on the heels of back-to-back ugly losses to Ohio State and Illinois that dropped the Badgers to 2-3 on the year.

Despite Wisconsin’s poor play to start the season, it was a stunning move from a university that has been a consistent winner and hadn’t fired a football head coach since 1989. Chryst, a Wisconsin alum, was in his eighth year on the job with a 67-26 overall record that included three division titles and three New Year’s Six bowl appearances.

But the recent spell of mediocrity — Wisconsin is 9-8 in Big Ten play over the past three seasons — evidently became too hard to ignore for the UW brass. The one-dimensional nature of Wisconsin’s offense and the lack of development for quarterback Graham Mertz fell squarely on Chryst’s shoulders and now the keys of the program have been turned over to Jim Leonhard, Chryst’s defensive coordinator.

Leonhard, a longtime NFL player, began his coaching career at Wisconsin as defensive backs coach in 2016 and was elevated to defensive coordinator in 2017. He has held that role ever since and has been regarded as one of the best coordinators in the country and a potential candidate for other head-coaching jobs.

Now Leonhard gets a seven-game audition to keep the role on a full-time basis, beginning with Saturday’s game vs. Northwestern. He’s certainly in heavy consideration for the job, but McIntosh said Sunday that a full coaching search will also take place “when the time is right.”

Who could be a fit for the Badgers? Here are 10 names, with Leonhard included.

Wisconsin interim head coach Jim Leonhard

Leonhard was clearly very conflicted when he spoke to reporters Sunday. He’s got a huge opportunity in front of him, but it comes at the expense of the man who hired him fresh out of the NFL.

“This man hired me with zero coaching experience and named me his coordinator a year later. So it’s a very emotional day for myself,” Leonhard said. “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. This place means a ton to myself and it means so much to everyone who’s 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.”

Though he’s only been a coach since 2016, Leonhard is thought of very highly for the work he’s done as UW’s defensive coordinator. He’s turned down other jobs, including to be the DC of the Green Bay Packers, to stay in Madison. Perhaps that’s part of the reason McIntosh made the move to remove Chryst. He didn’t want to lose Leonhard to another open job.

And for Leonhard, he’s got the chance to become the head coach at his alma mater and lead it into a new era. He has to be considered the favorite to be the next head coach.

Kansas head coach Lance Leipold

Leipold has won wherever he’s been and currently has Kansas at 5-0 and ranked No. 19 in just his second season on the job. Before this season, KU hadn’t won two Big 12 games in a season since 2008 or been ranked since 2009.

Before landing at Kansas, Leipold got his first FBS job at Buffalo and went 24-10 with two MAC division titles over his last three seasons there. But where he really made a name for himself was in the state of Wisconsin at the Division III level. Leipold amassed a ridiculous 109-6 record and won six national titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater, his alma mater.

Leipold’s stock is sky-high as he’s also considered a candidate for the vacant Nebraska job. Coincidentally, Leipold has experience at both Nebraska and Wisconsin. He was a graduate assistant at UW from 1991 to 1993 before working at both Nebraska and Nebraska-Omaha from 1994 to 2006 before he became the head coach at UW-Whitewater.

If you’re a Nebraska fan who wants Leipold to come to Lincoln, you’re hoping Leonhard does well during his stint as UW’s interim coach.

NC State head coach Dave Doeren

Dave Doeren has done a wonderful job at NC State. He’s in his 10th season with the Wolfpack and has a 68-50 overall record but hasn’t quite been able to get the program to the top of the ACC. The Wolfpack have won at least eight games in four of the last five seasons and this year’s team was considered his most talented. But after the loss to Clemson on Saturday, it’ll be an uphill climb for NC State to win the ACC.

If Doeren feels like he’s hit a ceiling in Raleigh, would he be willing to make a change? The 50-year-old Doeren was an assistant at Wisconsin from 2006 to 2010, including three seasons as defensive coordinator. From there, he spent two seasons as the head coach at Northern Illinois before heading to NC State.

Of the sitting Power Five coaches out there Wisconsin might have interest in, Doeren and Leipold make the most sense.

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell

Campbell has built Iowa State into a consistent winner. The Cyclones had just one winning season in the 10 years prior to Campbell’s arrival but have notched a winning record in five of his six seasons in Ames. That included tying a program record with nine victories in 2020. Campbell is steady, detail-oriented and has a reputation for player development. That all aligns with what Wisconsin has represented for years. But would he be the guy who could elevate the Badgers into an elite program instead of one that’s just good?

It’s unclear if Campbell would jump at the opportunity to leave Ames. His name has been connected to other jobs, including USC, in recent years and it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps ISU has hit a bit of a ceiling. Wisconsin is a better job, but would Campbell make the move if the Badgers came calling?

Kent State head coach Sean Lewis

Lewis, 36, is considered a rising star in the coaching profession. Lewis played collegiately at Wisconsin before entering the coaching profession. He was a big part of the offensive staff for Dino Babers at both Bowling Green and Syracuse and is now in his fifth season at Kent State. He coached the Golden Flashes to their first ever bowl win in 2019 and the program’s second division title last year.

This year, Kent State is considered one of the MAC favorites after playing a brutal non-conference slate against Washington, Oklahoma and Georgia. Kent put a bit of a scare into the defending national champions in Athens, losing just 39-22.

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule

If Rhule is looking for an exit route out of the NFL, Wisconsin would be a good landing spot. He’s in just his third season with the Panthers, but things have not gone well. The Panthers went a combined 10-23 in his first two seasons and are now 1-3 so far this year.

Before his foray into the pros, Rhule transformed two college programs — Temple and Baylor. At Temple he won 20 games over his final two seasons, including an AAC title in 2016. He then inherited the mess left behind by Art Briles at Baylor. By Year 3, the Bears were playing in the Big 12 title game and the Sugar Bowl.

Rhule played collegiately at Penn State and could jump at the chance to get back in the Big Ten.

Baylor head coach Dave Aranda

Could Aranda be lured back to Wisconsin? He spent three seasons as UW’s defensive coordinator before taking the same job at LSU and later becoming Baylor’s head coach. Aranda won a Big 12 title in just his second season in Waco, but would the resources of the new Big Ten TV deal make Wisconsin a more appealing job? Baylor spends plenty and should have better access to the College Football Playoff once the conference expands to 12 teams. Still, Aranda is somebody Wisconsin has to reach out to and gauge interest.

Washington State head coach Jake Dickert

Another Wisconsin native, Dickert is in his first season as Washington State’s head coach. He took over on an interim basis last year and now has the Cougars off to a 4-1 start this season. Included in that start was a 17-14 upset over the Badgers in Madison back in Week 2.

Dickert, 39, worked his way through the lower levels of the sport before getting his first FBS assistant job at Wyoming in 2017. He spent three seasons at Wyoming before going to WSU in 2020 as defensive coordinator.

Cal head coach Justin Wilcox

Like Aranda, Wilcox is a former Wisconsin defensive coordinator. He spent just one season with the Badgers (2016) before becoming the head coach at Cal. He’s had mixed results with the Golden Bears. It’s a tough job. Now in his sixth season, he’s 29-30 overall with two bowl appearances. He got serious consideration for the Oregon job last year.

Bronco Mendenhall

Mendenhall stepped away after the 2021 season at Virginia but has made it clear in recent media appearances that he’s ready to jump back into the grind of coaching. He has a lifetime 135-81 record over 17 seasons at BYU and Virginia. That’s a proven track record of building programs. Wisconsin would be a different challenge for Mendenhall. Would he be more interested in a rebuild like Colorado?