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Moments from past 4 years provide insight into why Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst

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University of Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh answers questions from reporters Sunday inside Camp Randall Stadium regarding the reason to name Jim Leonhard interim coach and dismiss Paul Chryst, Chryst's buyout dollar amount, and how the players were informed of the news.

Chris McIntosh insisted that his decision to fire Paul Chryst as the University of Wisconsin’s football coach wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to a 2-3 start this season.

McIntosh, who’s in his second year as the Badgers’ athletic director, said in a statement announcing Chryst’s firing and in a news conference Sunday night that the decision required a good deal of consideration and wasn’t easy. But McIntosh said little when asked what he hadn’t seen out of Chryst’s program to necessitate the move.

“I would just comment more holistically on where we’re at,” McIntosh said. “The expectations of our program at Wisconsin are to win championships, and I felt it was the right time to make a change to pursue those.”

So how did the Badgers get here? To a moment in which a coach who was born in Madison, has deep family ties to the program, won 72% of his games, twice was named Big Ten Coach of the Year and maintained a positive culture in the locker room is fired before the halfway point of his eighth season?

Answering those questions requires a look back at a number of moments that seemed at the time like blips on the radar of a program humming along on a strong foundation. However, after Chryst’s dismissal, those paper cuts appear to have added up to a point that McIntosh decided to tear off the entire sheet and start anew.

Here’s a look at eight inflection points that explain how the Badgers reached this point.

Oct. 19, 2019: Badgers lose at Illinois

UW’s 2019 season hit a significant speed bump in Champaign after starting 6-0 and appearing to bounce back from a difficult, injury-filled 2018. The Badgers, ranked sixth in the Associated Press Top 25 poll that week, lost on a last-second field goal after turning over the ball twice in the fourth quarter and allowing the Illini to score the last 10 points in a 24-23 loss.

It appeared in the moment as though the Badgers fell victim to a trap game, as they had a matchup at Ohio State the following week. Some injuries on the offensive line contributed to a choppy performance and two red-zone drives ended in field goals, not touchdowns.

But this is the start of a bad trend that came to define the latter portion of Chryst’s tenure — UW beating itself with turnovers. Chryst’s Badgers went 19-14 after this game.

Dec. 7, 2019: UW falls in Big Ten title game

A major unforced error zapped the momentum the Badgers built with a near-perfect first half and they weren’t able to recover. Badgers punter Anthony Lotti dropped a snap in the third quarter, which gave Ohio State the ball at the UW 16-yard line. The defense held for a field goal, but the play changed the tenor of the game and the Buckeyes rattled off 27 unanswered points in the second half to win 34-21.

Losing to Ohio State, the No. 2 team in the country at the time, was not a blemish on Chryst’s resume. But the special teams error, compounded by a missed field goal later in the third quarter, exposed a hole in Chryst’s tenure. UW’s special teams routinely were a net negative, which held it back from truly competing for championships, which McIntosh said Sunday was the standard to which Chryst was held.

Jan. 1, 2020: UW falls in the Rose Bowl

Chryst’s only bowl loss was another squandered chance to silence doubters with a win over a top-10 team. Lotti again fumbled a punt snap, which was returned for a touchdown by Oregon’s Brady Breeze to cap the first drive of the second half.

UW bounced back and built a 27-21 lead in the fourth quarter, but UW’s third lost fumble of the game gave Oregon the ball in plus territory, and quarterback Justin Herbert’s 30-yard touchdown run sealed it.

Chryst may still be UW’s coach with either the 2019 Big Ten championship or 2020 Rose Bowl win on his resume. But Chryst was ousted after three consecutive seasons ending in disappointing fashion and five games into one that appears destined for the same outcome.

Oct. 3, 2020: Jack Coan injured at practice

Senior quarterback Jack Coan broke his foot at a Saturday training camp practice and set off a chain of events that still is playing out. Coan was going to be the Badgers’ starter, holding off Graham Mertz for the role in part because the COVID-19 pandemic kept the team from its normal training from mid-March on. Whatever talent advantages Mertz had over Coan weren’t able to be shown in spring practices or a full set of training camp sessions.

But Coan’s injury pushed Mertz into the starting role, and Mertz exploded onto the scene in his debut with a school-record setting performance against Illinois. Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. His only incompletion was a drop. Mertz never matched that level of play the rest of that strange season, one in which UW canceled two games due to a COVID outbreak.

When Coan was nearing a return and coaches stuck with Mertz, Coan decided to transfer and find a new home for his last season of college football. Chryst’s logic in the moment appeared sound — Mertz showed a higher ceiling than Coan, and the belief was that a normal offseason and world around him would benefit him going into 2021.

There’s no way of knowing if sitting another season behind a healthy Coan would’ve eliminated the up-and-down performances that define Mertz’s career to this point, but the losses Mertz’s play contributed to put Chryst on the hot seat.

June 1, 2021: Recruiting staff leaves

Multiple recruiting staffers left UW in the summer of 2021, but director of player personnel Saeed Khalif left June 1 and that date was significant — it was the first day recruits were able to come to campus after recruiting bans due to COVID-19 were lifted.

Recruiting staffers come and go, but Chryst and the Badgers not hiring replacements for them until early this year was a risky decision, and the effects might not be fully felt for years.

“In the short term, I don’t think you could bring in a group and impact it anyway,” Chryst said in December. “The ones you’re recruiting and building relationships with, the relationships are with your coaches. So finishing this class, (the summer is) when it gets kind of handed off anyways.”

UW’s 2022 class ranked 44th in the country in 247Sports’ composite rankings, and the Badgers missed on a pair of in-state, four-star offensive linemen, Carson Hinzman (Ohio State) and Billy Schrauth (Notre Dame). They also didn't land four-star tight end Jerry Cross (Penn State) out of Milwaukee. The 2023 class is ranked 55th in 247Sports' composite. 

Whether Chryst’s decision not to hire recruiting staffers was all his own is still cloudy — budget cuts related to COVID remained in effect last summer and perhaps those limited his ability to add new hires at that time.

Nov. 27, 2021: UW loses at Minnesota

It was the second time in four seasons that UW had to give Paul Bunyan’s Axe to the Gophers, a sign that a series that was one-sided for two decades was very much a rivalry once again.

The loss snapped a seven-game win streak that turned around the season after a disastrous 1-3 start. But again, simply losing wasn’t the issue. Minnesota was more physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage and shut down the Badgers’ rushing attack.

Down two scores late in the game, UW sent the punt team on the field and looked as though they were going to go ahead with the punt — effectively giving up — before a false start pushed them back 5 yards. UW burned a timeout to get a play in before converting the fourth-and-6 play. But the Badgers turned it over on downs four plays later.

“Never should’ve even been thinking the punt,” Chryst said that night. “Didn’t handle that well, flat out. … Everything goes through me, so it was a mistake on me, by me.”

It was another example of disorganization that was so uncharacteristic under Chryst.

March 17, 2022: Johnson rounds out questionable hires

After UW’s scoring output stalled in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Chryst revamped his offensive staff this offseason. But his reliance on familiarity with candidates and belief that coaches can succeed regardless of position assignment if they’re good enough made for a couple of head-scratchers.

First, moving special teams coordinator Chris Haering to tight ends coach put a position searching for new starters under the watch of someone who never has coached the spot. Offensive coordinator Bobby Engram, who worked with Chryst at Pittsburgh, never had called plays or been a coordinator before this season. There’s not enough data to fairly judge Engram yet, but UW’s offense hasn’t been effective against the three Power Five conference teams it’s faced so far.

Al Johnson, a former All-American center for UW, was hired as the running backs coach. Chryst had to replace Gary Brown after Brown took leave at the end of last season and died earlier this year from illness related to cancer he battled multiple times. Johnson had been an offensive coordinator and left the post of head coach at Division II East Central to join the UW staff, but he never had coached running backs directly.

Chryst took swings by hiring men he knew and trusted to give their best efforts, but the results through five games weren’t good enough to produce the right wins.

Oct. 1, 2022: UW blown out by Illinois

“Draw a line in the f---ing sand.”

Those are the words Chryst told his players as they trailed by four at halftime Saturday against Illinois. But really it was about the season as a whole. UW already had lost to Washington State at home and was coming off what is tied for the worst loss in the Chryst era at Ohio State a week earlier

The Badgers came out flat in the second half against Illinois, allowing a touchdown on the Illini’s first possession, then fumbling a kickoff return that turned into a field goal. Despite the nightmare start to the half, UW had the ball down 14 with plenty of time to mount a comeback but never got a drive going until midway through the fourth quarter when Illinois had extended its lead.

That performance apparently was the last straw for McIntosh, a former All-American left tackle who had to watch the Illini control the line of scrimmage for 60 minutes. Senior safety John Torchio said after the game that something was off about the Badgers.

Chryst had run out of time to find fixes.

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