Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard gets his shot under tough circumstances

Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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Jim Leonhard would have preferred much different circumstances, but the former Wisconsin safety and NFL veteran has been given the opportunity to lead his alma mater’s football program.

How long he has this chance depends on whether he can help Wisconsin salvage a season that’s gone so far off track that it resulted in former coach Paul Chryst‘s firing over the weekend. Leonhard acknowledged feeling mixed emotions about his appointment due to his respect for Chryst.

“It’s a dream for myself coming out of that nightmare,” Leonhard said at the news conference announcing Chryst’s exit.

Wisconsin (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) opened this season ranked 18th but finds itself in last place in the Big Ten West Division after losing the last two weeks by a combined margin of 55 points, including a 34-10 drubbing at home against an Illinois team led by former Badgers coach Bret Bielema.

That led to athletic director Chris McIntosh‘s midseason decision to fire Chryst, a former Wisconsin player who had gone 67-26 since taking over in 2015. Selecting Leonhard as interim head coach wasn’t nearly as surprising.

Leonhard, a former walk-on, developed into an All-American at Wisconsin before beginning a 10-year NFL career. He joined Chryst’s staff at Wisconsin in 2016 and became defensive coordinator the following year.

“I really became who I am at the University of Wisconsin and in this football program and around so many people that are still here today,” said Leonhard, who turns 40 on Oct. 27. “To have an opportunity to be in this position is not one that I take lightly.”

The moment was still difficult for Leonhard because it came at Chryst’s expense. Chryst was on the staff during Leonhard’s college playing career. Leonhard noted he had no coaching experience when Chryst put him on Wisconsin’s staff.

Leonhard’s defenses annually have ranked among the nation’s best, though the Badgers have taken a step back this season after replacing eight of their top 10 tacklers. Wisconsin allowed the fewest yards per game and yards per play of any Football Bowl Subdivision team last year.

“I’m confident nobody can do it better at this moment in time than Jim,” McIntosh said.

Leonhard’s immediate task is to boost the spirits of players stunned by their coach’s abrupt exit as they get ready to visit Northwestern (1-4, 1-1).

Wisconsin players conveyed their support of Chryst via social media.

Outside linebacker Nick Herbig tweeted, “Still at a loss 4 words, but one thing I do know is we playing this season for you Coach!! Love you beyond measure.” Running back Braelon Allen tweeted, “Anyone who wanted Coach Chryst gone isn’t a part of this team.”

“(For) a majority of these players, a huge determining factor in coming to Wisconsin was coach Chryst,” Leonhard said. “(They’re) very shaken with the news.”

The last seven regular-season games now essentially serve as an audition as Leonhard tries to show he should have the job for keeps.

“I feel like I can take this opportunity and help this place grow,” Leonhard said. “That’s why I came back a number of years ago. It’s why I haven’t left.”

The Badgers believe they can still make something of this year.

They want to avoid their first losing season since a 5-7 finish in 2001. The wide-open nature of the Big Ten West, where every team has at least one conference loss, means they still have a chance of competing for the division title.

First they must get back to playing the way they usually do. Wisconsin hasn’t looked like itself so far, piling up penalties and missing consistent production from the offensive line that the Badgers typically get. Illinois essentially beat Wisconsin at its own game, outrushing the Badgers 137-2 and collecting five sacks.

Leonhard said he wanted the Badgers to turn things around in part to show their appreciation for Chryst.

“His family and this program mean everything to him,” Leonhard said. “I think it’s our duty, my duty as a coach to get our staff and players to rally behind him and really fulfill everything that he had envisioned for this team, which we still think is out there.”

Texas State hires Incarnate Word coach Kinne to lead Bobcats

Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
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Texas State hired Incarnate Word coach G.J. Kinne on Friday to lead a Sun Belt program that has had only one winning season since moving up to the Bowl Subdivision in 2012.

The 34-year-old former Tulsa quarterback has made a fast rise in coaching since ending his professional career in 2017.

After three years as an offensive analyst at SMU, Arkansas and the Philadelphia Eagles, Kinne became offensive coordinator at Hawaii in 2020. He held the same role for UCF in 2021 before landing the head coaching job at FCS Incarnate Word this season.

Incarnate Word is 10-1 and averaging 53 points and 8.3 yards per play, both FCS highs, heading into its playoff game Saturday against Furman. Kinne will remain with Incarnate Word through their playoff run.

“It’s with great honor that I’m accepting the call to be next head football coach of the Texas State Bobcats,” Kinne said. “We are going to play fast, have relentless energy, and when the going gets tough, have the mental confidence to win tight games in the second half and represent the state of Texas. Eat ‘Em Up!”

Texas State fired Jake Spavital last week after the Bobcats won just 13 games in his four seasons.

Kinne signed a five-year contract, the school said. Terms were not immediately released.

“My goal was to hire someone with demonstrated leadership experience, success as a head coach, established relationships with Texas football coaches, and success with recruiting and developing players,” said Texas State President Kelly Damphousse. “I sought a leader with a plan to capitalize on our location in the heart of the best high school football in the country.”

Florida Atlantic hires Tom Herman as football coach

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BOCA RATON, Fla. – Former Texas and Houston head coach Tom Herman will take over at Florida Atlantic as it heads into its first season in the American Athletic Conference.

The hire comes just days after FAU fired Willie Taggart, who went 15-18 in his three seasons with the Owls. Details of the contract with Herman were not immediately available.

“We are incredibly excited to welcome Tom Herman to Paradise,” FAU Director of Athletics Brian White said Thursday. “Throughout the process and the more we talked with Coach Herman, the more it became apparent to me that he was the right person to lead our football program. Beyond his knowledge of the game, which is obvious by his success over the years, he also truly cares about the young people in his program.”

FAU’s final season in Conference USA ended with a 5-7 record and an overtime loss to Western Kentucky. The Owls will be in the American next season.

Herman returns to college football after spending the 2021 season with the Chicago Bears as an offensive analyst.

Herman was 22-4 at Houston, a mark that helped him land the head coaching job at Texas where he went 32-18 with four straight bowl trips in 2017-2020. He also was an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Ohio State during the Buckeyes’ 2014 national championship season, as well as stops at Iowa State, Rice and Texas State.

“All the pieces are in place at FAU for us to be successful,” Herman said. “There are already great young men on this team, great facilities, a great location, a great recruiting base and great leadership, all of which are important to building a successful program.”