A firing that won’t do what you think it will

Pat Forde:

The NFL is supposed to be the shark tank of football, an eat-or-be-eaten cauldron of pressure, a place where job security adheres to the league’s acronym: Not For Long. And yet it’s kind, gentle and patient compared to the current cutthroat world of college football.

That’s the sport where administrators love to talk about things like “student-athlete welfare” and building character and teaching life lessons. Well, here is the current life lesson in college football: everyone and everything is expendable, at any time. We will ditch a conference via covert operations for more money, and we will fire a coach who starts to slip in a heartbeat. Watch your back.

NFL coaches fired thus far this season: zero.

College coaches fired thus far this season: five.

Scott Frost at NebraskaHerm Edwards at Arizona StateGeoff Collins at Georgia Tech. And on this particularly bloody Sunday, Karl Dorrell at Colorado and Paul Chryst at Wisconsin. And the last of those is a shocker.

Chryst is more Wisconsin than cheese curds and bratwurst. He was born in Madison, spent some of his childhood living a few blocks from Camp Randall Stadium while his dad was an assistant coach, went to school there, was an assistant coach there, and then was a highly successful head coach for seven seasons. But when the eighth season veered off course, bam. He was out.

Chryst is 67–26 overall, 43–18 in the Big Ten, won three Big West division titles and had three top-15 finishes. But a 2–3 start to this season, punctuated by an ugly home loss Saturday to former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and Illinois, marked the end.

Paul Chryst won three Big Ten West titles and two New Years Six bowls and was a two-time Big Ten coach of the year.

It’s a cold, cold business, cloaked in rhetorical puffery. Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh did his part by delivering a few platitudes in the school’s release announcing Chryst’s firing: “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. 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.”

Funny way to demonstrate that respect and admiration, firing him Oct. 2. The annual autumnal administrative panic started to pick up three years ago, and now it’s reached a new peak.

The in-season firings also make a mockery of what programs preach about commitment and togetherness during the hard winter workouts, the spring practices, the demands that players stay on campus together through the summer. Commitment and togetherness are disposable if the season starts badly. The transfer portal beckons, and the coaches are sent packing.

Then the talk bluntly shifts from thanking the fired guy to getting ahead in recruiting. The December signing period has become a massive season disruptor—yet another college sports problem sitting there in plain sight, yet going unremedied. Move signing day to the spring and end the rationalization of in-season firings due to the recruiting calendar.

But, hey, Chryst walks away a very rich man, having been given a pay raise to $5.25 million all of a year ago—the latest in a long line of extensions that end up costing a school a fortune when they don’t pan out. Per his contract, the buyout is a reported $16.4 million. The days of pandemic pay cuts and furloughs certainly receded quickly. Fiscal restraint left college sports a long time ago, and it ain’t coming back.

It’s all just silly money in the sport at present. The media rights deals are skyrocketing, the salaries are skyrocketing, the facilities never stop being built and modernized, and now the NIL collectives are kicking into high gear. And what comes along with that is a desperation to win that is leading to an epidemic of in-season firings.

Every situation is different, and every coaching change has its own nuances. Nebraska waited too long to fire Frost, then rushed ahead with it even though it could have waited until October and saved itself an additional $7.5 million. (But why? Silly money. Burn it if you’ve got it.) It could be argued that Arizona State and Georgia Tech waited too long as well. Colorado is in terrible shape, but Dorrell was the Pac-12 Coach of the Year as recently as 2020.

Wisconsin’s move is different, more cold-blooded but not without some reasoning behind it. Interim coach Jim Leonhard, the defensive coordinator, has been a very successful assistant and had his name bandied about for other jobs. This gives him an in-season audition to see if he’s head coach material.

And then there is the potential Lance Leipold Hiring Derby scenario. Leipold, the coach who has gotten Kansas off to a miraculous 5–0 start in his second season in the hardest Power 5 job in the country, could be the object of desire at Nebraska. And if Wisconsin has also set its sights on a guy who has deep ties to the state, well, this could explain the urgency in firing Chryst.

Leipold is a Wisconsin native who was a graduate assistant with the Badgers 30 years ago. He also was a small-college coaching giant, winning six Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater. (Not unlike former Badgers basketball coaching legend Bo Ryan, who won big at the D-III level before getting his star turn in Madison. Remember, athletic directors love trying to find repeatable hiring formulas.)

The fact that it took Leipold until age 51 to get a shot at an FBS job—and then it was a Buffalo, in the Mid-American Conference—is part of what ails big-time college football. But he’s made up for lost time, both there and now at Kansas, and suddenly he’s the hottest 58-year-old with a 7–10 record in his current job on the planet.

It’s a strange new day when the possibility exists of Nebraska and Wisconsin fighting over the Kansas football coach. But that might be where we’re heading.

As for where the sport as a whole is heading? Deeper into the shark tank. Someone else will be dismissed next week. But at least they’ll say nice things about the freshly fired guy in the release. It’s the college football way.

Some UW fans who are spoiled by the kind of success UW has had since the 1993 season (and either forgot or don’t remember what UW football was like in the seasons before Barry Alvarez arrived in Madison) seem to believe that Leonhard’s elevation to head coach will fix everything. That requires you to believe that Leonhard will change offensive schemes (no coach blows up his offense or his defense — which, by the way, gave up 86 points in the previous two games)  in the middle of a season) and somehow get players who play better than the current team.

Maybe Chryst was destined to be fired at the end of the season. But firing a coach in the middle of a season hasn’t made things better than Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler told his men’s basketball coach, Bill Frieder, who was heading to Arizona State at the end of the season to not wait to leave. That was in 1989.

In the arms race that is college football UW should improve its facilities. But it seems unlikely UW will be able or willing to compete in the Name Image and Likeness environment created by Ohio State or Alabama. (Or Texas A&M, which has the best team money can buy, but with underwhelming results.)

And as Nebraska fans have found out, blowing up what you’re doing and changing things (in Nebraska’s case, coaches) because you think that will improve things may not. Wisconsin’s formula in both football and men’s basketball has been developing in-state players who may not necessarily be four- or five-star recruits. Watching a lot of running plays isn’t always exciting to watch, but Chryst won nearly three-fourths of his games.

How will Badger fans feel if a new coach installs the sexy offense du jour and the Badgers stop winning? Does the name “Don Morton” (of the Veer from Victory offense) sound familiar? (Back in 1988, when Morton was on his way to a 1-10 season in which the one win came despite the Badgers’ being shut out, I went to a game and sat next to an alumnus who said he was trying to get Dave McClain, who had coached the Badgers to four consecutive seven-win seasons, fired when McClain died. Really.)

A Morton-style disster almost happened when Alvarez replaced Bret Bielema with Gary Andersen, who thankfully left (for reasons as strange as Bielema’s departure for Arkansas) before he could tank the program. Andersen ran the wrong offense for a cold-weather team, but Alvarez hired him for some reason, and Alvarez was fortunate that Andersen left on the way to, like Bielema, getting fired.



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