‘You have to move on’: Leonhard shares how Badgers have addressed shock of Chryst’s firing

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Badgers interim head coach Jim Leonhard knows he has a challenge in front of him.

Not only is he being charged with turning around a season that has gotten off to a disappointing 2-3 start, but Leonhard acknowledged Tuesday that it will be difficult for players and coaches alike to put aside the emotions of the sudden firing of former head coach Paul Chryst and get ready to play Saturday against Northwestern.

“Obviously, a unique week here with Wisconsin football,” Leonhard said as he started his opening comments during a press conference with members of the media on Tuesday morning.

As he did Sunday night in the immediate aftermath of Chryst’s firing, Leonhard was careful to show respect for the former coach while focusing on the next opponent. Leonhard said he shifted around the team’s schedule on Monday to allow players and staff to openly share their thoughts and emotions about the decision.

“We’re all here because of what Paul Chryst had done and the trust that he had in us,” Leonhard said. “Initially, (it) felt like there was very little I could say to this team to handle that emotion in the moment. It hurt a lot of guys and had a lot of conversations with the team, individually as units and then in reaching out to individual guys as well, because everyone’s going to handle it a little bit differently.”

Leonhard said his message to the team was simple: let it hurt for a bit, but then compartmentalize it as they started to prepare for Northwestern.

“Not trying to brush it aside, not trying to make it go away but we have to be able to focus, right?” Leonhard said. “These guys have a ton on their plate, as far as school, what they’re hearing from home, and obviously the football side being a huge change.”

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On the field, Leonhard says realizing where they are right now — 0-2 in the Big Ten, but with every team in the Big Ten West having at least one conference loss — is a big part of how the team can take the emotion out of their preparation.

“(If) we start playing good football, we’re OK,” Leonhard said. “We still are in position to reach a lot of the goals that we set at the beginning of the year and we’ve got to take it a game (at) a time.”

Leonhard says not much has changed early in the week in terms of how the coaching staff has worked to put together a gameplan for Saturday. As the week progresses, Leonhard says he will get a better sense of what “reality” is for him in terms of what he will need to delegate on the defensive side of the ball and how he can support the offensive game planning with coordinator Bobby Engram.

“We took a big piece kind of out of the offensive planning and operations [with Chryst no longer there], so what’s the best way that we can support you to really, in very short notice, have to get this game plan together in a little bit different way,” Leonhard said.

Ultimately, Leonhard says his goal is to get the coaching staff to put the players in better chances to succeed — and then expecting the players to step up and execute when the moment comes. He says some difficult conversations were already being had with the players on that front after last week’s loss to Illinois, even before Chryst was fired.

“There is no special talk. There is no players-only meeting. There is no coaches-only meeting, right? It’s getting it done at this point. We know the issues. We know we have to play better. There is no talking anymore, like, it’s time to get it done,” Leonhard said.