Wisconsin coaching candidates: Lance Leipold, Jim Leonhard among leading options to replace Paul Chryst

Wisconsin has a coaching vacancy after eighth-year coach Paul Chryst was fired five games into the season, and it immediately becomes one of the most attractive job openings in college football. Once a Big Ten doormat, Wisconsin has been transformed into a Midwestern power in recent decades. From Barry Alvarez’s first season in 1990, through Bret Bielema, Gary Andersen and now Chryst, Wisconsin has won six Big Ten titles and been to 27 bowl games, including seven Rose Bowls.

While Ohio State and Michigan have dominated the Big Ten throughout its history, Wisconsin has emerged as the conference’s West division power and one of its premier programs. It’s a job that doesn’t come open often. Considering its history and the money flowing into the athletic department thanks to the Big Ten’s latest television deal, it’s the kind of job that could pull away sitting Power Five coaches.

So who will be the next coach of the Badgers? Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard seems to be an obvious favorite, and he’ll get a seven-game tryout of sorts as the interim, but he’s not guaranteed anything. Here’s a short list of names that could garner interest.

Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin defensive coordinator/interim coach: I genuinely think this is Leonhard’s job to lose. He’s been seen as a coach-in-waiting with the Badgers for a while, though most expected his wait to be a little longer. Still, Leonhard has garnered interest from other Power Five jobs — including a few Big Ten gigs — in the past, and the feeling was he was more interested in waiting for the Wisconsin job to open. Now, he’ll get his chance.

Lance Leipold, Kansas coach: Leipold did a wonderful job building a Buffalo program with little history into a program contending for MAC titles, and he already has Kansas ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2009 in his second season there. But before Leipold did all that, he led Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater to six national titles while going 109-6 in eight seasons. Leipold is a Wisconsin native, and there’s some thought that one of the reasons Wisconsin made a move on Chryst this early was because it wanted to make a run at Leipold before Nebraska could — or before Kansas could lock him up with a new deal. If it’s not Leonhard, I’d choose Leipold as the most likely candidate.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State coach: Some are wondering if Campbell has waited too long to make the jump from Iowa State. Of course, that assumes he’s ever planned to jump at all. While the Cyclones are only 10-8 overall and 5-6 in Big 12 play since the start of 2021, it’s hard to overlook how well he’s done at one of the country’s most challenging Power Five programs. If Campbell decides Wisconsin is the place to be, you have to think he’d win plenty of games there, too.

Dave Aranda, Baylor coach: Gary Andersen didn’t get much right during his short tenure as Wisconsin coach, but he nailed his defensive coordinator hire. Aranda spent three seasons running the Badgers’ defense before leaving 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’s a California native who has coached all over the country. If Wisconsin called, he’d have to listen.

Sean Lewis, Kent State coach: This would be a departure from what Wisconsin has been, but it’s about time Lewis started getting Big Ten consideration. Lewis’ Kent State teams have consistently produced up-tempo, high-scoring offenses. The Golden Flashes put up 22 points against Georgia two weeks ago and, after playing one of the most difficult nonconference schedules in the universe, opened conference play with a 31-24 win over Ohio. Like Leonhard, Lewis is a Wisconsin alum 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 in two years there, he went to NC State, where he’s made the Wolfpack one of the ACC’s toughest programs and churned out NFL Draft picks. Still, in his 10th season at NC State and coming off a loss to Clemson, it’s possible Doeren is wondering if he’s reached his ceiling in Raleigh. Maybe it’s time for a fresh start elsewhere?

Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers coach: Rhule’s NFL tenure has not gone well, and Carolina Panthers fans would likely pay for his plane ticket to Madison, but Wisconsin fans shouldn’t concern themselves with that. Plenty of good college coaches have flopped in the NFL, returned, and won plenty of games. That Nick Saban guy comes to mind. Anyway, Rhule won more games at Temple than anybody should be able to — he went 20-7 during the 2015 and 2016 seasons — and then quickly turned around a Baylor program fresh out of the depths of the Art Briles fallout. I have no doubt he’d win in Madison, too.

Chris Petersen, Fox analyst: Something of an outside-the-box idea, Petersen is one of the great college coaches of recent vintage. He went 92-12 in eight seasons at Boise State, taking the Broncos from a program nobody had ever heard of to America’s favorite Cinderella story. He then won two Pac-12 titles and reached the College Football Playoff in his six seasons at Washington, going 55-26. If he’s looking to get back into coaching, Wisconsin seems like a great place for him to do it.

Dan Mullen, ESPN analyst: Mullen’s time at Florida didn’t go as well as hoped, but he’s still a good offensive mind. He proved with his time at Mississippi State that he’s a pretty dang good head coach, too. While he came to prominence coaching in the SEC, Mullen is a Pennsylvania native who spent plenty of time in the Midwest and Northeast, so coaching at Wisconsin wouldn’t be like coaching in a foreign country. I do wonder how his offense would fare in a cold-weather environment like Wisconsin. Plus, I enjoy him on television, so maybe I shouldn’t even include him?

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