Wisconsin fires football coach Paul Chryst, names defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard interim

Wisconsin has fired coach Paul Chryst after the team’s 2-3 start.

“After a heartfelt and authentic conversation with Coach Chryst about what is in the long-term best interest of our football program, I have concluded that now is the time for a change in leadership,” athletic director Chris McIntosh said in a news release Sunday. “Paul is a man of integrity who loves his players. I have great respect and admiration for Paul and the legacy of him and his family at the University of Wisconsin.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will serve as interim coach.

“I also have confidence in Jim Leonhard to guide the program for the remainder of the season,” McIntosh said. “There is still a lot of season left to play and I know Jim will do a great job while the program is under his leadership.”

The decision to fire Chryst came Sunday, a day after Wisconsin lost 34-10 to Illinois, coached by former Badgers coach Bret Bielema. Wisconsin also fell 52-21 to Ohio State on Sept. 24, one of its worst losses in recent memory, and fell 17-14 at home against Washington State on Sept. 10 as a heavy favorite.

Chryst, 56, finishes 67-26 in seven-plus seasons at Wisconsin, his alma mater. He won 10 games or more in four of his first five seasons with the Badgers, winning a Cotton Bowl, an Orange Bowl and three Big Ten West Division titles. But the program fell off beginning in 2020, going 4-3, before a slow start to the 2021 season, in which the Badgers finished 9-4.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s move came as a surprise.

“Anyone who wanted Coach Chryst gone isn’t a part of this team,” star running back Braelon Allen tweeted.

According to Chryst’s contract, Wisconsin will owe him $16.4 million if he is fired without cause, although a different settlement could be negotiated. Wisconsin’s athletic board in January approved the rollover of Chryst’s five-year contract through the 2026 season.

Leonhard, a three-time All-America defensive back at the school, returned to Wisconsin as an assistant in 2016 and took over as defensive coordinator the following year. He has long been viewed as a potential successor to Chryst and is expected to be a candidate for the permanent job.

“I appreciate Chris McIntosh placing his trust in me to lead our team,” Leonhard said in the news release. “My focus right now is on our players and moving forward with preparing them for our game on Saturday at Northwestern.

“I owe a lot to Coach Chryst. Everyone in our program does. He gave me my first coaching job, and for that I am forever grateful. As a Badger, I thank him for his impact on our football program and our players over many years.”

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