Wisconsin has a coaching position open after eighth-year coach Paul Chryst was fired after five games of the season, and it’s instantly becoming one of the most attractive vacancies in college football. Once a doormat of the Big Ten, Wisconsin has morphed into a Midwestern power over the past few decades. From Barry Alvarez’s first season in 1990, to Bret Bielema, Gary Andersen and now Chryst, Wisconsin has won six Big Ten titles and played in 27 bowl games, including seven Rose Bowls.
While the state of Ohio and Michigan have dominated the Big Ten throughout their history, Wisconsin has emerged as the power of the conference’s West Division and one of its most important programs. It is a job that is not often open. Given his history and the money pouring into the sports department thanks to the Big Ten’s latest television deal, it’s the kind of job sedentary Power Five coaches could pull off.
So who will be the next Badgers manager? Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard looks like an obvious favorite and he’ll get a seven-game test of sorts as an interlude, but he hasn’t guaranteed anything. Here’s a short list of names that might spark interest.
Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin defensive coordinator/interim coach: I really think it’s Leonhard’s job to lose. He was seen as the Badgers’ waiting coach for a while, although most expected his waiting time to be a little longer. Still, Leonhard has drawn interest from other Power Five jobs in the past — including a couple of Big Ten gigs — and the feeling was he was more interested in waiting for the Wisconsin job to open. Now he gets his chance.
Lance Leipold, Kansas coach: Leipold did a wonderful job turning a Buffalo program with little history into a MAC title contenders program, and he’s got Kansas in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2009, in just his second season there recorded. But before Leipold did all that, he led Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater to six national titles while winning 109-6 in eight seasons. Leipold is a Wisconsin native, and it’s suspected that one of the reasons Wisconsin moved against Chryst so early was because it wanted to attack Leipold before Nebraska could — or before Kansas could lock him up with a new deal. If it’s not Leonhard, I would choose Leipold as the most likely candidate.
Matt Campbell, Iowa State Coach: Some are wondering if Campbell waited too long to make the jump out of Iowa state. That assumes, of course, that he ever planned to jump in the first place. While the Cyclones are only 10-8 overall and 5-6 in the Big 12 as of early 2021, it’s hard to overlook how well he’s done in one of the most challenging Power Five programs in the country. If Campbell decides that Wisconsin is the right place, you have to assume that he would win many games there as well.
Dave Aranda, Baylor coach: Gary Andersen didn’t do much right during his short tenure as Wisconsin coach, but he nailed his attitude as defensive coordinator. Aranda spent three seasons managing the Badgers’ defense before moving on for the same position at LSU. After winning a national title with the Tigers, Aranda took the Baylor job and won the Big 12 last season. He is a California native who has coached across the country. When Wisconsin called, he had to listen.
Sean Lewis, Kent State Coach: This would be a departure from what Wisconsin was, but it’s about time Lewis started considering Big Ten. Lewis’ Kent State teams have consistently produced fast, high-scoring attacks. The Golden Flashes amassed 22 points against Georgia two weeks ago and, after playing one of the toughest non-conference dates in the universe, opened the conference game with a 31-24 win over Ohio. Like Leonhard, Lewis is a Wisconsin grad as a former tight end for the Badgers.
Dave Doeren, NC state coach: Doeren was the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin from 2006 to 2010 before leaving to become the head coach at Northern Illinois. After winning two conference titles there in two years, he went to NC State, where he made the Wolfpack one of the toughest programs in the ACC and churned out NFL draft picks. Still, in his 10th season at NC State and a loss to Clemson, Doeren may be wondering if he hit his ceiling at Raleigh. Maybe it’s time for a fresh start somewhere else?
Matt Rhule, coach of the Carolina Panthers: Rhule’s NFL tenure hasn’t gone well, and Carolina Panthers fans would probably pay for his plane ticket to Madison, but Wisconsin fans shouldn’t worry about that. Many good college coaches have flopped, returned and won many games in the NFL. That reminds me of this Nick Saban. Either way, Rhule won more games at Temple than anyone should be able to — he went 20-7 in the 2015 and 2016 seasons — then quickly flipped a Baylor program fresh from the depths of Art Briles -Fallout came. I have no doubt he would win in Madison as well.
Chris Petersen, Fox analyst: Something of an unconventional idea, Petersen is one of the great college coaches of recent years. In eight seasons, he went 92-12 at Boise State and propelled the Broncos out of a program no one had heard of and into America’s favorite Cinderella story. He went on to win two Pac-12 titles and reach the college football playoffs 55-26 in his six seasons in Washington. If he wants to get back into coaching, Wisconsin seems like a great place for him.
Dan Mullen, ESPN analyst: Mullen’s time in Florida didn’t go as well as hoped, but he’s still a good offensive head. He proved during his time at Mississippi State that he’s also a damn good head coach. Mullen is a Pennsylvania native who has spent much of his time in the Midwest and Northeast while rising to prominence in the SEC as a coach. Therefore coaching in Wisconsin would not be like coaching in a foreign country. I wonder how his offense would fare in a cold weather environment like Wisconsin. Also, I enjoy him on TV so maybe I shouldn’t even include him?