Wisconsin's firing of Paul Chryst is latest sign that sentimentality be damned for schools that want to win big in cutthroat world

Paul Chryst was born in Madison, grew up in Platteville as the son of a small-college football coach and was a letter-winner for Wisconsin.

He favored simple sweatshirts and smashmouth football — offense and defense — and when he took over as head coach of the Badgers and won three Big Ten West titles (and 52 games) in his first five seasons, it looked like the 56-year-old might stay forever.

He didn’t.

The modern reality of college football came for one of the game’s most throwback head coaches Sunday. Chryst was fired just five games into the season. The Badgers were 2-3 and had just been mauled by Illinois and former coach Bret Bielema.

Oct 1, 2022; Madison, Wisconsin, USA;  Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst looks on during the third quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Paul Chryst was ushered out of Madison as the head coach after Wisconsin fell to 2-3 following a blowout defeat to Illinois. (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports)

That early success, or even last year’s 9-4 season (albeit a disappointing one), and that pure Wisconsin biography meant nothing. He was owed about $19 million to not coach, but UW said he agreed to a settlement.

“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," athletic director Chris McIntosh said in a statement.

"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,” McIntosh continued.

There is no time anymore for good guys, just good teams. Wisconsin isn’t one right now.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, a three-time All American at Wisconsin and 10-year NFL veteran, will take over. He’ll have seven games to prove he deserves the job on a full-time basis.

There is little arguing that Chryst’s program had slipped lately. The Badgers were just 15-10 since losing the Rose Bowl in the 2019 season. It no longer was pushing people around on the line or stuffing them defensively.

It’s the suddenness that surprised, perhaps mostly because it’s clear Wisconsin — cautious, staid Wisconsin — is going to act with the same cutthroat speed of an SEC team. College football has been big business for a long time, but there were always degrees to it. Maybe not any longer.

Bigger conferences. Bigger contracts. Bigger pressure.

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Five weeks into the season there have been five fired Power 5 head coaches with Chryst joining Karl Dorell at Colorado, Geoff Collins at Georgia Tech, Herm Edwards at Arizona State and Scott Frost at Nebraska.

They are owed over $60 million to not coach because boosters and athletic directors are so willing to pay them not to work. Nebraska could have saved $7.5 million if it waited just 10 days to fire Frost but it blew the money.

With that kind of cash, few are going to shed a tear for these guys. You want job security, find a less pressurized (and lower paying) gig. You want major college football, you better be growing or you’re gone.

At Wisconsin, that wasn’t happening, and clearly the Badgers aren’t going to accept being anything less than the Big Ten West bully. That’s a fair expectation.

Chryst wasn’t fired for his inability to beat Ohio State. It was that the Badgers couldn’t compete with the Buckeyes while also getting rolled at home by Illinois and Washington State. Wisconsin knows what a good team looks like and this wasn’t it.

Maybe Leonhard can change that. The program has enormous resources and support. It has a rabid fan base and a decent location to lure recruits, especially out of Chicago. With a new billion-dollar Big Ten media deal coming, money isn’t an issue.

Maybe you can’t realistically win a national title at Wisconsin, but you should be able to reach and compete in the expanded College Football Playoff that is coming, perhaps as soon as the 2024 season.

That should be the standard for the program and as the Big Ten expands to 16 teams with the addition of USC and UCLA, as places such as Northwestern announce the construction pans for a new $800 million stadium, as everyone seeks an edge in a sport with a finite amount of victories, there can be no backsliding.

Wisconsin has a standard and a brand, and that standard and that brand has made it consistent winners in modern college football. You stick with the wrong coach for too long – ahem, Nebraska – and the hole you need to dig out of becomes deeper.

So the sweatshirt in a Madison, this perfectly Wisconsin, of a coach, was disposed of more quickly than anyone could have imagined.

Two Big Ten West coaches are gone and there isn’t even frost on the pumpkin. It’s the SEC-ization of the sport. Keep up or not.