I don't have a take
Good morning-ish, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Sunday evening, I was up in the Chicago suburbs, having dinner with my in-laws, doing my best not to think about work, when I got the text. Wisconsin had surprisingly decided to fire Paul Chryst.
I ended up junking most of what I was planning on writing for this morning, because I figured the internet probably wouldn't want to read something about NIL valuations or D-II realignment when everybody wanted to talk about coaching searches.
Back when I worked at SB Nation, somebody would need to share some sort of take, some instant reaction, some germ of an insight right after a major development. Was this an overreaction by Wisconsin? Another garish escalation of buyout money in a broken coaching economy? A prudent preemptive strike against mediocrity? Is Jim Leonhard the Truth? A clownfraud? Something else?
I've watched a decent amount of Wisconsin football over the last few years. I know the campus and fanbase fairly well. I tried to read as much as I could last night, tried to see if there was some context I might have been missing.
After all of that? My take? Forgive me for using an Iowa term in a story ostensibly about Wisconsin, but I'm afraid I have to punt.
Like, I understand why some of my media colleagues are shocked by this
Wisconsin hasn't fired a football coach since 1989, a truly shocking statistic in the modern era of college football. Few athletic departments and football programs have enjoyed more cultural continuity than Wisconsin in my lifetime, and this sort of aggressive decision is highly unusual.
And it's not like Chryst was bad. The Badgers made a bowl game in every year of his tenure, and he walks away with the third most wins in Wisconsin football history. He's got a .720 winning percentage. He sent guys to the NFL. He's from Madison. And shoot, the man looks, dresses and talks like every single man over 40 in Dane County. You'd think all of that would give the guy a little more benefit of the doubt, right?
But I also get why Wisconsin did it
There's no nice way to say it. This team stinks right now. Toledo and Arkansas State were more competitive against Ohio State than the Badgers were (Wisconsin was nuked from orbit 52-21 on national television). Then, facing former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, Wisconsin was crushed, at home, by Illinois, 34-10. Wisconsin...Wisconsin!...rushed for just two yards.
I tweeted this during the game:
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownEP)
Oct 1, 2022
I wasn't expecting, or even necessarily recommending, Wisconsin to make a head coaching change by early October...only that I thought some structural changes were needed. But the program has unquestionably regressed since their last dominant years of 2016-2017, with only one AP Top finish since then. Their current recruiting class is 12th in the Big Ten, and last year's class was 11th. The immediate future of the program isn't great, baring portal magic.
In an era where a) The Big Ten is about to get much more difficult for Wisconsin, with the additions of UCLA and USC and the likely abandoning of divisions and b) where Wisconsin is about to get a gazillion dollars in TV revenue, I can understand why the school felt they needed to make a change now, rather than drag out the inevitable for another two years, even if that meant firing the platonic ideal of a Fleet Farm spokesman.
The longer I do this, the more I realize that I just have no idea what kind of coach is going to be successful. I'm more interested in process
Football is a weird sport. Balls bounce in funny ways, 20-year olds are fickle and unpredictable, and the pressures of running a modern big-time college football program are immense, requiring skillsets that have nothing to do with recruiting or instructing players on the finer points of beating zone coverage. I don't feel confident in predicting who is going to do a good job anymore, even if the internet algorithms and talk radio stations would prefer that I at least try.
I've written about this a few times now, but the more interesting thing to me is the process. I want to better understand why a school is doing something, how they arrived at that conclusions, and what they hope to accomplish by doing it. Better processes, allegedly, create a higher likelihood of better results.
Which is why this particular decision is way more interesting to me than whatever happens at Colorado, or even Arizona State.
The industry conventional wisdom seems to be centering around Wisconsin Interim head coach Jim Leonhard. Typically, the interim head coach is just the guy keeping the seat warm when the head coach gets canned in October, but Leonhard is considered to be the favorite to earn this gig.
On one hand, it's easy to see why. Leonhard is young (only 39), but has the reputation for being an excellent defensive mind, rapidly rising from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator to man-in-demand across not just the college coaching ranks, but the NFL. He's a former All-American defensive back at Wisconsin, and not only that, but he did it as a former walk-on from a town of like, 200 people.
So the man is unquestionably Wisconsin...like, cut him and he might bleed brandy and cheese curds kind of Wisconsin.
But maybe that's also the problem? If you are hypothetically concerned that the Badger program has become ossified and stale under the Chryst regime, is there risk in hiring a guy who has never coached anywhere else but Wisconsin? Sure, the previous blueprint had been very successful over the last 20 years, but as the sport and industry change, can a school afford to keep using the same blueprint, with only marginal adjustments?
Or are the weaknesses of the Chryst era just part of the Wisconsin experience, and the school just wants somebody who can execute that vision...better? Fans like to point to the fact that recruiting had stalled over the last few seasons at UW, which is true.
But Wisconsin, by virtue of having a Big Ten booster culture, a demanding admissions process, cold-as-hell weather, campus demographics that are only slightly more diverse than the most Caucasian campuses in the country, and a state that only produces a tiny handful of elite players a year....is never going to recruit at an elite level. It has been a developmental program for the last 40 years, and unless Menards, Culvers, Johnson Controls and Kohls get together to create some sort of NIL Bagman Voltron, it's always going to be that way.
So this is all just to say that I don't know if this was the right move or not, and I don't really know if Wisconsin should just try to Wisconsin Even Harder, or attempt to go in a different cultural or philosophical direction. I don't have the emotional or intellectual energy to try and beat the drums over Chryst's buyout (which isn't actually going to be the $16.4 million that his contract demands). I don't know if this was hubris, or simply the cold, calculating cost of doing business in a modern Big Ten. Maybe this is Wisconsin's Glen Mason Moment. Maybe they'll just double down on Wisconsiness and win 10 games against next year.
I guess the closest thing I have to a truly hot take about all of this is if the major concerns are that Wisconsin has not truly modernized their approach to NIL, or recruiting, or player evaluation...then those are problems that need to be addressed at a level above the head football coach. I don't think anybody wants their head coach to be the Czar Of Branded Deals. That should be a somebody else's problem.
I recognize this makes for terrible sports radio. It's bad for SEO. It probably won't generate dozens of new newsletter subscriptions.
But hey...a lukewarm take is probably the most spiritually correct thing to have for a Wisconsin, right?
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