Jim Leonhard will leave Wisconsin's staff after bowl game

Jim Leonhard will not return to the Wisconsin staff next season, it was made official Wednesday.

Leonhard, 40, was the Badgers' interim coach for the final seven regular-season games, after Wisconsin's surprising decision to fire coach Paul Chryst on Oct. 2. He will serve as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 28 against Oklahoma State. Then, he will depart the staff of his alma mater, which he joined in 2016 after a 10-year playing career in the NFL.

"Jim Leonard will forever be a Badger," athletic director Chris McIntosh said in a statement released Wednesday. "He has made us proud at every turn, as a player, as a coach, as an ambassador for our program. As interim head coach, he navigated extremely difficult circumstances over the last two months of this season, always putting our players first and helping them through a trying time in their lives. For that, we owe him our gratitude. I have every confidence that Jim will be successful in whatever he chooses to do with this next chapter."

New Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell and Leonhard discussed the potential of Leonhard remaining on staff as an assistant. Leonhard had been a candidate for the permanent head-coaching job, and received strong support from several players. But Wisconsin instead hired Fickell, who guided Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff in 2021 and went 53-10 during the past five seasons.

"It has been an honor to coach these young men, and thank you to all the fans who supported us along the way," Leonhard wrote Tuesday on Twitter. "On Wisconsin!"

Leonhard, a three-time All-America defensive back/returner at Wisconsin, quickly established himself as a top defensive coach at his alma mater. He turned down interest from other college programs as well as a coordinator opportunity with the Green Bay Packers to remain at Wisconsin, and was long seen as the likely successor to Chryst.

There was hope among many around the program that he could remain on Fickell's staff. Fickell served as Ohio State's interim coach in 2011, but then remained on staff under Urban Meyer in a defensive coordinator role. But Fickell already has been putting his staff together, adding top defensive assistants Mike Tressel and Colin Hitschler from Cincinnati, according to sources.

"Jim Leonhard is the epitome of what we want this program to be about, selfless, hard-working, passionate," Fickell said in a statement released Wednesday. "... After our discussions, it was decided it was best for all of us to come to this conclusion."

After Chryst's firing, Leonhard gave the Badgers an immediate jolt, as they upended Northwestern, 42-7, in his debut game. The Badgers went on to win three of the next five games, securing bowl eligibility under Leonhard with a 15-14 win over Nebraska on Nov. 19. But they dropped rivalry games to both Iowa and Minnesota down the stretch.

Wisconsin starting quarterback Graham Mertz, who advocated for Leonhard to get the permanent coaching role, entered the transfer portal earlier this week.

Standout sophomore running back Braelon Allen, another strong supporter of Leonhard's, tweeted Wednesday indicating that he will remain with Wisconsin going forward.