MADISON – The Wisconsin Badgers football players, fresh off a heart-wrenching season, took a punch to the gut Sunday.
Jim Leonhard, the man the players hoped would become the program’s permanent head coach, was passed over for the position by athletic director Chris McIntosh. The program named Luke Fickell, formerly the head coach at Cincinnati, as its new head coach Sunday afternoon after approval by the UW Board of Regents.
The news was stunning to those who have followed the Badgers coaching search and surely hard to swallow for the players, who as recent as Saturday were in strong support of Leonhard taking over the program.
Fickell was scheduled to meet with the team Sunday night.
“I believe in his vision. I believe in him as a man,” junior receiver Chimere Dike said. “I’m sure they’re going to make a decision that is best for our program, but I’m fully behind Coach Leonhard and I know the whole team is. I’d be super-ecstatic to see him get the job.”
UW's season filled with challenges
This season has been filled with challenges for the Badgers.
In addition to emotions that resulted from Paul Chryst’s firing after a 2-3 start, Wisconsin was racked with injuries, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary. Two weeks ago, the team was hit with the news of Devin Chandler’s death. Chandler, who played receiver for UW from 2020-21, was one of three Virginia football players shot and killed by a former Cavaliers player.
UW finished 4-3 under Leonhard while dealing with those issues, with the losses coming by an average of nine points. The Michigan State loss Oct. 15 came in overtime and the loss to Minnesota on Saturday wasn’t decided until the final play.
“I think whoever hires the coach is going to be an idiot if they don’t hire Coach Leonhard,” senior safety John Torchio said.
Torchio, who ranked second in the Big Ten with five interceptions, wouldn’t offer specifics when asked what needed to change with the program but reiterated his support of Leonhard, noting that there would be an advantage to having the new head coach be familiar with the program.
“The benefit of hiring someone who has been here as opposed to someone who comes in here and makes it all new is tremendous,” Torchio said. “(Leonhard) has been here. He’s seen it. In his mind I’m sure he’s had things he’s liked and things he didn’t’ like. Obviously, I think it would be a tremendous benefit for the person who is going to be the next head coach to be a part of the program.”
Who will stay, who will go?
Junior linebacker Nick Herbig has worn his emotions on his sleeve this season. He was close with Chryst and had a strong relationship with Leonhard.
Saturday, he tried to explain what the past eight weeks have been like.
“I feel like this whole year has been crazy,” he said. “It baffles me every day that they just leave us out to dry. I kind of feel like we’re just sitting around hoping and praying that we’re going to get an answer. We’re still kids. We’re still in college. We’re still young. All you guys, all the outsiders, you’re grown. You all have been through life already. We’re growing, we’re becoming men.
“I just wish we could get an answer and obviously Coach Leonhard. I think he is the greatest Badger of all time and I think he deserves it. I think he has every right for it because of what he has pulled us out of, what he’s done for this program, what he has done for me personally, what he’s done for my family, I can never repay him”.
The wounds created by McIntosh’s decision are still fresh, but one of Fickell’s first jobs will likely be meeting with the players and trying to keep the better ones on board.
Wisconsin was a young team this season. A player like sophomore running back Braelon Allen would be a highly sought after transfer, while players like Herbig and quarterback Graham Mertz could transfer or attempt a jump to the NFL.
After the Iowa game, Allen refuted rumors that Michigan or any other program had contacted him about transferring and expressed his support for Leonhard.
"As long as Coach Leonhard is here, it's where I'll be," Allen told Drew and K.B. on 97.3 The Game before the Iowa game.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin football players must digest hiring of Luke Fickell as coach