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The Illini beat the coach out of Wisconsin

How will the coaching change in Madison impact the Big Ten landscape?

Illinois v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

The University of Wisconsin has fired head coach Paul Chryst.

After starting the 2022 season 2-3, the Badgers have installed star defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard as their interim head coach. Chryst had an objectively successful tenure in Madison, going 67-26 over 7-plus seasons. He was the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year on two occasions. But losses to Washington State, Ohio State and Illinois exposed some cracks in the on-field foundation of the traditionally annoyingly stable Badgers.

So what does this mean? And how does it impact the Illini? Let’s dig in.


Okay, that’s not exactly what happened. But barely 24 hours after the Illini dominated the Badgers at Camp Randall, the Badgers made a coaching change. And while perhaps this has been brewing for some time, Illini fans should take great joy in the pettiness of this moment. No, it’s never nice to celebrate anyone losing their job. But the University of Illinois beat the coach out of Wisconsin.

Illinois v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

We’ve got to roll with the next man up. Is Jim Leonhard the rising star everyone thinks he is? That remains to be seen. But he is one of the rare interim coaches with the real potential to be a long-term head coach. His defenses have traditionally been some of the best in the country. His NFL pedigree and winning reputation have been a hit on the recruiting trail. He has a lot of trust in Madison, and rightfully so. But we’ve never seen him run a program while managing the day-to-day.

Does he have the CEO presence? How does he do in the rubber chicken grip-and-grin world of schmoozing boosters and raising money? He turned down the Green Bay Packers to keep his DC job at Wisconsin, so perhaps this is a dream job for him. However…

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Wisconsin at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What’s up with his defense? In the last two weeks, against two conference games, the Badgers have given up 86 points. 52 of those points were against Ohio State. That is a program with the talent to run it up on almost every team in the country. So it wasn’t surprising when Ryan Day’s squad dished out a prison beating. But the “Crap School” Illinois stomping into Madison and physically bullying the vaunted Leonard defense raised a lot of eyebrows. How will Leonard’s new role impact defensive playcalling?

But seriously, how entitled are you? As an Illinois fan, I can’t imagine firing a coach that won 67 games in under 8 years. The thought of abandoning a guy who is off to a bad start who has a thorough track record of successful seasons seems greedy to me. Yes, I get it, 2022 isn’t going well. And maybe there are more problems than we currently understand. But are Wisconsin fans really becoming a bunch of Ben Brusts? Are you expecting Ohio State-level recruiting? Alabama-level winning? Notre Dame-level national praise?

Chryst won 67 games. Bret Bielema won 68 games at Wisconsin, and the fans were angry when he left. Make up your mind!

Turnover in the previously stable Big Ten West? Two in-season coach firings among the seven teams in the B1G’s west division have turned the season upside down. Neither Wisconsin nor Nebaska has a committed long-term replacement. Nebraska is clearly willing to shop in the highest of high rent districts…according to the most fun coaching rumor since 2004.

Will Wisconsin’s choice of an in-house star lead to another decade of relative consistency in Madison? Will Nebraska finally find the coach to meet their fanbase’s lofty expectations? (Probably not, unless Warren Buffett finances the technology to clone Tom Osborne and suddenly make it 1975.)

These changes come in the midst of Minnesota having a great season…okay, a pretty good one, Iowa forgetting to score points, Northwestern flirting with demotion to the MAC, Purdue treading water, and Illinois possibly becoming a juggernaut force that nobody, even Michigan, can even dream of stopping. Or, more realistically…

Illinois has an identity. You’re going to have to beat Illinois. They’re not going to do it for you anymore. Tommy DeVito is stingy with the football. Chase Brown doesn’t like it when you try to tackle him, so he laughs at your sad attempts at defense. And Ryan Walters is out-scheming his more highly publicized counterparts. His game plan and the execution thereof held Braelon Allen to 2 yards on 8 carries. Look at that again, because I am just as shocked writing it as you are reading it.

This is a team that can play ball control on offense with Tommy D. and Chase Brown’s big play potential in the back pocket. And the defense is simply one of the best in college football.

I’m not an objective, dispassionate observer…but I know a winning formula when I see one.

Also, Coach Walters, please don’t leave us.

Chattanooga v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Illinois has a favorable schedule. It won’t be easy, nor will it be perfect. But with Nebraska and Northwestern left on the schedule, Illinois may have overcome the loss to Indiana and sit comfortably on the precipice of bowl eligibility. With the way Mel Tucker’s Michigan State squad has played this season, that date in Champaign looks much more palatable. Also, 10-year contract.

With Iowa’s offense looking like the forward pass is three steps ahead of it on the evolutionary chart, Illinois could head into Illini Homecoming with a ludicrous 5-1 record.

Besides the possible two-touchdown underdog tilt with the Khaki-wearing maniac in Ann Arbor, Illinois could be favored in every other game for the rest of the season.

Illinois has a coach with a plan. We don’t know who Nebraska will hire. We don’t know how much longer Kirk Ferentz will want to do this. We don’t know if Jim Leonhard will stick and succeed in Madison. We don’t know if Fitz will be sacrificed to the gods of a splashy hire for the new stadium. We don’t know which Purdue team will show up any given season/week/quarter. We don’t know if Fleck’s boat will dock in the SEC some time soon.

But right now, today, we are seeing Bret Bielema’s building plan come to fruition. It’s a sustainable plan built on a philosophy that doesn’t need a team full of Clemson/Alabama athletes. And this coaching staff is putting a successful product on the field week over week. The loss to Indiana seems so long ago after three straight impressive performances.

Chattanooga v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It’s time to unleash the full force of momentum on the recruiting trail. The mantra has been you need to win to get recruiting momentum but you also need the best possible recruits to produce results on the field. Well now, Illinois is in position to sell winning, not just playing time and Big Ten national television attention. They can sell stability, not just hype.

This would be a particularly good time to reach out to some top in-state studs who are either uncommitted or committed elsewhere. Like, committed to schools that just fired their coaches. Like, committed to schools that only have an interim staff. Roderick Pierce, Jamel Howard, your giant table is set. You can be the next Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton.

When your opponent is weak, attack.

This is the perfect time for Illinois to draw a line in the sand and not let Wisconsin get away with bullying Illinois in recruiting anymore.

Illinois v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

In the end, the statement game was a shockwave. The free ride is over. Illinois did make a statement in Madison, and the division was tossed on its skull by a coaching switch in its aftermath.

It’s up to Josh Whitman and Coach Bielema to keep up the momentum.