Change was needed for Badgers to move ahead

Ross Litscher, Sports Editor

On the final Saturday of the college football regular season, Wisconsin lost the Battle for the Axe game to rival Minnesota, the first time they’ve lost back-to-back games to the Gophers since 1993-94. That capped off what was a roller coaster regular season to say the least. Despite clinching a bowl berth for a 21st consecutive season (only Georgia and Oklahoma have longer active streaks), the Badgers 6-6 record is their worst in over 20 years.
Head coach Paul Chryst was fired on Oct. 2 after a 2-3 start and DC Jim Leonhard was named interim head coach, taking over a tough situation and leading the team to a 4-3 record the rest of the way. The assumption was that this was a test run to eventually give Leonhard the permanent coaching position after the season, which makes the news the day after the axe game all the more shocking. Wisconsin announced that they’ve hired Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell to be the Badgers 31st head coach.
Let me start off by saying I love this hire even though the announcement was way out of left field. Fickell is an Ohio native who was on Ohio State’s, his alma mater, defensive coaching staff for 16 years, including being their interim head coach in 2011.
In 2017 he got his first head coaching job with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. His successful six-year tenure there included a 57-18 overall record, winning the AAC coach of the year three times and leading the Bearcats to their best season in school history in 2021, going 13-1 and becoming the first ever group of five team to be included in the College Football Playoff. I feel like this is a home-run hire for AD Chris McIntosh, who is hiring his first head coach since taking over athletic director for Barry Alverez in 2021.
While there are concerns about how upfront he was with the team about all the coaching moves this year, I do believe Fickell is the right guy for the job and will rebuild the program into a winner again. I don’t think the Badgers will go away from their run first, ground and pound style of play that has led to many great lineman and running backs to come out of UW, but changes are coming, specifically in the recruiting department.
One thing the Badgers severely lacked under Chryst was their recruiting compared to the blue bloods of college football, and in recent years it has definitely caught up to them. This year was the first time since 2003 that UW lost to Minnesota and Iowa in the same season. Teams of similar styles that the Badgers used to run over are now just toss-ups, and the Badgers’ struggle to find consistent quarterback play is more obvious than ever. The Ohio State game this year was a clear sign that other teams in the same conference are in a completely different league as far as player talent goes. With USC and UCLA arriving in the Big Ten in 2024 (because geography apparently means nothing), the Badgers basically had to decide now whether they wanted to compete for top tier players with these big-time schools or be left in the dust. If Wisconsin wants to be a consistent winner and keep up in the always changing college football world, this was the right move to make.
Now I don’t want to write this without thanking Paul Chryst and Jim Leonhard for their contributions to the program. Both played football for the Badgers and came back to be coordinators before taking on head coaching roles. Chryst was our OC for our Rose Bowl years in the late 2000s and early 2010s and has the third most wins in program history. Leonhard has been DC since 2017 and has consistently led one of the best defensive units each year. Both Chryst and Leonhard will always be remembered as important parts of the Wisconsin football story and I wish them the best going forward. But at the end of the day, time waits for no one and the Badgers’ football program needs a restart.
At this point it is unsure if Leonhard will remain defensive coordinator here; he has been offered many other college football and even some NFL coaching jobs in the past year, but his roots are with Madison and Wisconsin. With that being said, I’m sure we can all agree that the Packers are in desperate need of a new defensive coordinator after witnessing the Joe Barry masterclass of a 2022 season, so Jim Leonhard is definitely welcome there. I would assume the Badgers would let Leonhard coach the team in their bowl game this year, as most of the time new coaches don’t begin their tenures with a bowl game (the only one that I can remember is Sonny Dykes with SMU in 2017). After that though, the Luke Fickell era officially begins, and with him bringing his recruiting department from Cincinnati (that has recruited and developed many NFL draft picks in recent years), expect them to get a head start in the early signing period that is just around the corner, and also to hit the transfer portal hard which is important for Wisconsin to keep up in the modern college football world. Madison is a great college football city and I believe that Luke Fickell will give them the competitive team that Wisconsin deserves.