Is football in Wisconsin boring? The 5 weirdest seasons I covered say otherwise

I was halfway with my two-year-old son on a stroller ride around the neighborhood on a Sunday night in early October when my cell phone rang. I picked up and heard the five words that changed the course of the Wisconsin football season.

Paul Christ has just been fired.

It was 6:12 p.m. By 8 p.m., I was sitting in a room under Camp Randall as athletic director Chris McIntosh and interim coach Jim Leonard addressed members of the media during a quickly arranged press conference. The rest of that week—and, really, the season—was a roller coaster for the players, the program as well as the reporters trying to cover it all.

I spent the next couple of months detailing not only why McIntosh fired Chryst, but how players reacted to the news and rallied around Leonard, Leonard’s nomination, and ultimately, McIntosh’s decision to hire Luke Fickell instead. There was no shortage of storylines and plot twists during one of the most unpredictable seasons ever.

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But was he the strangest of them all? Well, that got me thinking. Wisconsin is viewed from the outside as a stable and often dull program, but more strange things have happened than you might assume. What I’ve learned in 12 seasons of dating Badgers is that we generally have no idea what’s going to happen from year to year, no matter how hard we try to predict those things.

With that in mind, and inspired by a question on the mailbag from reader Ben R. (Thank you, Ben), here are the five weirdest Wisconsin seasons I’ve covered since my first season on 2011’s Beats.

1. 2014 (Gary Anderson Bows)

If any year can challenge 2022, it should be Andersen’s second – and last – season as head coach of Wisconsin because it was filled with crazy things happening all the time. Preseason camp featured a quarterback rivalry between Joel Staff and Tanner McEvoy. Andersen told reporters after a team scrimmage two weeks before the home opener against LSU, “I think you could probably sit down and watch practice and see which direction it’s going.”

The thing is, reporters had followed the drill up to that point and Stave clearly looked like the best quarterback option for Wisconsin. It was definitely a better passer-by. Instead, Andersen chose McEvoy because he wanted a mobile threat.

McEvoy promptly completed 8 of 24 passes for 50 yards with no touchdowns and 2 interceptions in a loss to LSU – one of the worst passing performances by a Badgers quarterback you will see. Stave was so devastated by losing the starting job that he developed a mental block that prevented him from completing even base throws. Andersen tried to protect Staff by issuing a statement saying that Staff was injured in the shoulder. He clarified later that day that Staff was unharmed and that “it may have been a poor choice of words”. Then Staff volunteered to talk to reporters that same day to set the record straight on what I think was the most bizarre day I’ve ever covered.

A month later, Stave was well enough to play against Northwestern on an ineffective McEvoy. Not only did Stave start the following week against Illinois, he helped lead Wisconsin to seven straight wins and the Big Ten West title.

I didn’t even mention the weird Anderson-Melvin Gordon situation after the opening game. Gordon, who finished second in Heisman Trophy voting that season, carried just four counts after halftime against LSU. Andersen said after the game that he didn’t know why Gordon didn’t touch the ball more. He explained two days later that Gordon had pulled a quadriceps muscle, but Gordon said he was feeling better.

Lack of communication seemed to be a constant theme of Andersen’s short era. After that LSU game, Andersen suggested that the Wisconsin wide receivers struggled to adjust to press coverage of LSU with their more physical defensive appearances, and cut their ways, causing McEvoy to misfire. Wide receivers coach Chris Beattie defended his players vigorously, saying the receivers were right and didn’t cut any ways.

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All of this led to Andersen leaving Wisconsin for Oregon State four days after an embarrassing 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the big championship game. It was a shocking move, but one of many that defined Andersen’s extraordinary coaching career. Andersen was upset that some high school recruits and college players could not qualify academically at Wisconsin. Then, Barry Alvarez, head coach of the Athletics, took over as interim head coach for the second time in two years. Alvarez hired Chryst from Pittsburgh, which seemed like a very good move for the next five seasons as he compiled a 52-16 record. Then came 2022…

2. 2022 (Crest fired, Leonard promoted, Vickel hired)

She wrote after Wisconsin lost 34-10 at home to Illinois on October 1 that the performance “revealed a new bottom in the Crest era”. This performance represented the last straw for Mackintosh, who fired Crest the next day.

The next eight weeks were all about whether Leonard was able to get the permanent job. I thought he put in a great performance in a really tough place, going 4-3, helping the Badgers become draft bowlers for the 21st straight season and getting widespread support from the players. I think Leonard would have made a good coach, and he obviously had a vision for the future at Wisconsin that was going to include some changes to try to raise the level of the program. But McIntosh instead went with a more consistent head coaching commodity in Fickell, who led Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff during the 2021 season.

The end of the season was decidedly bizarre, with Fickel trolling the Guaranteed Price Championship sidelines in a pretend capacity while former staffers, including Leonard, coached the ball game despite knowing their time at Wisconsin was over once the clock struck zero. . But in the end, McIntosh pulled off what appears at this point to be one of the best coaches hired in the offseason. In just over a month since his appointment, Fickell has brought significant energy to the program by adding key parts in recruitment and through the transfer portal and positioning the Badgers well for their long-term future.


Brett Bielema departed for Arkansas three days after the Big Ten title game. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

3.2012 (Bragi Brett Bielema)

Andersen made a bizarre move just days after no Big Ten appearance in Wisconsin’s original title game. Three days after Wisconsin waxed Nebraska 70-31 to win the 2012 conference championship title, Bielema left for Arkansas, astounding the Badgers fan base as well as Alvarez, who named Bielema as his successor of choice after the 2005 season.

The 2012 campaign was certainly extraordinary. Quarterback Danny O’Brien was brought in to replace Russell Wilson but lost his starting job to Staff, a state player. Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Marcuson two games into the season, after a 10-7 loss to Oregon State, and replaced him with his alumnus assistant Bart Miller. Wisconsin lost five regular season games, all in single digits, and finished third in the Big Ten Leaders Division – remember that name? – however still eligible for the league title game because undefeated Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible due to NCAA sanctions.

Then Wisconsin blew the gates off Nebraska, as offensive coordinator Matt Canada unleashed his full arsenal after a power struggle over offense with Bielema, and the Badgers went all the way to the Rose Bowl. Alvarez came out of retirement at the request of the players to coach the team in a 20-14 loss to Stanford.

4. 2020 (the season of epidemiological changes)

This entire season has been an oddity due to the pandemic, first as the Big Ten canceled non-conference games in July, then canceled the season in August and brought it back in September. Wisconsin and quarterback Graham Mertz looked great in their season opener against Illinois at an empty (except for a few cardboard cutouts) Camp Randall.

After that, Mertz was among several players to test positive for COVID-19—at one point there were 27 active cases in the program—leading to the cancellation of two games. Wisconsin has never been the same. The Badgers were able to qualify for a bowl game with an overtime win over Minnesota and then beat Wake Forest in the May Bowl at Duke.

From a reporting perspective, this was the most difficult season to cover because all of the interviews were understandably done in groups over Zoom, so it was difficult to form relationships with players and coaches or get many one-on-one offers. The only game I attended in person was the opening because the interviews were on Zoom – which you could take part in at home – so there was no point in traveling to the games and watching from above in the press box.

It was probably only fitting that while celebrating in the locker room to close out the season, Mertz dropped the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, which crashed to the floor. It was temporarily replaced by a bottle of Duke’s mayonnaise attached to the handle with red tape. Really strange times.

5. 2018 (high expectations unchanged)

Wisconsin came off a 13-1 season and an Orange Bowl victory in 2017. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook was named MVP after throwing for 258 yards and four touchdowns. With running back Hornibrook, plus three All-Americans on the offensive line, Heisman Trophy nominee Jonathan Taylor at running back and a talented wide receiver, this was a team that was to build on success and challenge for the Big Ten title. The Badgers received 28 first-place votes to win the Western Division in the preseason media poll. Heck, I wrote a story from the Big Ten Media Days with this headline: Playoff or Bankruptcy? Wisconsin isn’t afraid to set lofty goals for 2018.

But the season quickly derailed. Quintez Cephus, a wide receiver, took time off during fall camp after being informed that the Dane County District Attorney’s Office planned to file sexual assault charges against him for the April 2018 incident (Cephus would be expelled from school for violating a non-academic misconduct penalty and then acquitted a year later of sexual assault two women). Teammate Danny Davis was suspended for two matches for his involvement. On the field, Wisconsin has struggled to regain its form in 2017.

Taylor dominated with 2,194 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, but Hornibrook has thrown nine interceptions over his last four games, and the offensive line has provided uneven pass protection. Hornibrook dealt with concussion issues that continued and forced backup Jack Cowan to work out five games, preventing him from taking a redshirt season.

Wisconsin finished the season by winning the Pinstripe Bowl but went 8-5 and lost to frontier rival Minnesota for the first time since 2003. Hornibrook did not play for Wisconsin again after the Minnesota game, and transferred to Florida State for his final season. This may have been Wisconsin’s most disappointing season in the past 20 years given the expectations the team held.

(Photo by Gary Andersen and Joel Staff: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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