LAWRENCE, Kan. — The long-suffering football fans at Kansas mostly thought it flattering when Nebraska fired Scott Frost and rumors began that the Huskers would be interested in hiring the Jayhawks’ Lance Leipold as their next coach.
When Wisconsin fired its coach this week? The feeling wasn’t so much flattery as fear.
Leipold was born in the small town of Jefferson, about a 40-minute drive from Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, and he’s about as Wisconsin as summer sausage and cheese. Leipold played college football at Wisconsin-Whitewater, the Division III school where he later got his coaching start and won six national championships as a head coach. He also three seasons working for Barry Alvarez in the early 1990s as a graduate assistant with the Badgers.
So while the ties between Leipold and Nebraska were tenuous at best – he coached at tiny NAIA school Doane and the since-disbanded program at Nebraska-Omaha – the links Leipold has to Wisconsin run deep.
“We’re happy here. We have no plans on going anywhere,” Leipold said, when asked by The Associated Press about the interest he’s generated with the first 5-0 start at Kansas since 2009 – the one that has the Jayhawks ranked No. 19 as they head into this weekend’s game of unbeatens against No. 17 TCU.
“Anything else is rumors,” Leipold continued. “Some of these things are happening while we’re in the film room – I didn’t even know some of the stuff Sunday until later in the evening, when I’m getting all these text messages. I had no idea.”
He’s referring to Wisconsin firing Paul Chryst, who was born in Madison and played quarterback for the Badgers before getting into coaching at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville and elsewhere before returning to Madison to take on the head coaching job in 2015.
Chryst won at least 10 games in four of his first five seasons. He led the Badgers to a bowl game every year, including last season, when they went 9-4, finished second in the Big Ten West and won the Las Vegas Bowl. And twice he led Wisconsin to top-10 finishes in the final AP poll, one fewer than Alvarez accomplished in 16 seasons.
None of it mattered after the Badgers got off to a 2-3 start this season. Chryst was fired and replaced by defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, a former Wisconsin star who will serve the rest of the season as interim coach.
“Paul Chryst is a close friend. I’ve known Paul since his late father tried to recruit me to Wisconsin-Platteville. That’s a good family, a good man,” Leipold said. “That’s a guy who averaged nine wins a year and got let go. But you know, that’s a part of what we signed up for these days. It’s a changing world in a lot of different ways and that’s unfortunate.
“And I’m not questioning anyone’s decision because there’s a lot of factors that go into these (firings) that nobody really knows,” Leipold added, “but that’s me speaking as a person and as a fan, not as a coach.”
Kansas will do everything it can to keep Leipold, whom it plucked from Buffalo on the heels of the failed Les Miles experiment in Lawrence. Leipold was rewarded with a one-year extension in May despite having won just two games last season.
As part of that extension, the average annual value of the 58-year-old’s contract was bumped to $2.6 million. He’s still the lowest-paid Big 12 coach by a wide margin: Iowa State’s Matt Campbell is due $4 million this year, and Oklahoma State made Mike Gundy the conference’s highest-paid coach at $7.5 million.
But Kansas is seizing on the momentum of a program more accustomed to 10-loss seasons than ones in which it wins five games. “College GameDay” is coming to Lawrence for the first time, when the school aims for a third consecutive sellout.
Season ticket sales are rising faster than at any point in recent memory. The school also is pushing ambitious plans to replace Memorial Stadium, which dates to the 1920s, as well as building a hotel, conference center and other amenities that would create a new “front door” to the entire campus.
“What does this all mean? It means a lot for this program as far as where we’re at and how we’re viewed now,” Leipold said of all the attention this week. “It means a lot to this athletic department and this university and this campus.”