MADISON, Wis. — The bombshell has been dropped. Now how does Wisconsin’s football program recover from the blast?
After seven seasons in charge, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema left to take the head coaching position at Arkansas on Tuesday. Despite Bielema’s tremendous 68-24 record at Wisconsin, he never really seemed to be fully embraced by Badgers fans across the state, for whatever reason. Still, the move caused slack-jawed silence and shock because he didn’t seem like a man hell-bent on leaving — especially just before Wisconsin appeared in its third straight Rose Bowl.
One day later, some of the surprise has worn off, so it’s time to turn the attention to the search for Bielema’s successor. Given the nature of the program and the type of players it recruits, one has to imagine Wisconsin will pursue a coach with knowledge of the school in some capacity.
A look at five possible candidates:
• Paul Chryst, head coach, University of Pittsburgh
Chryst, 47, is everybody’s obvious choice for the job. The Madison native played football at Wisconsin and served two coaching stints with the Badgers. In 2002, he was Wisconsin’s tight ends coach under then-coach Barry Alvarez before leaving for a position at Oregon State.
Chryst returned to Wisconsin in 2005 as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He took over as the lone offensive coordinator the following season, when Bielema was in his first season as head coach. During his time as offensive coordinator, Chryst led Wisconsin’s offense to record heights. Last season, the Badgers averaged a program-best 44.1 points and 469.9 yards per game, and then Chryst left to take the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh.
Speculation about Chryst’s return to Wisconsin was considerable enough Tuesday night that he released a statement expressing his desire to stay at Pitt (6-6), which will play Mississippi in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., on Jan. 5.
“I understand the speculation surrounding my name given today’s developments,” Chryst said. “I am committed to the Pitt football program and the University of Pittsburgh. I am focusing all my time and energy on our team’s bowl game preparation and recruiting a great group of young men to join our program and this outstanding university. We are working hard every day to re-establish this program, and I am excited about the future of Pitt football.”
Despite Chryst’s statement, one has to wonder whether he’ll change his tune if Alvarez, now the Wisconsin athletic director, begins to pursue him. If so, he could be in for a considerable raise. Chryst is currently making $1.75 million per year at Pitt. Bielema made $2.7 million at Wisconsin. You do the math.
Bevell, 42, knows Wisconsin’s program quite well. He played quarterback for the Badgers under Alvarez and led the team to its first Rose Bowl victory in 1994. He also is responsible for one of the most famous plays in Wisconsin football history during that game, when he scored on a 21-yard touchdown run to help Wisconsin secure a victory against UCLA.
Bevell’s coaching resume is impressive. He served as wide receivers coach at the University of Connecticut from 1998-99 and has spent the past 13 years as an assistant coach in the NFL. He has been an offensive assistant for the Green Bay Packers (2000-02), a quarterbacks coach for the Packers (2003-05), an offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings (2006-10) and now the offensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks (2010-present).
Seattle currently ranks No. 24 in the NFL out of 32 teams in total offense (328.6 yards per game) behind rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, a former Wisconsin standout.
• Bob Bostad, offensive line coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bostad, 46, cut his teeth as an offensive line coach at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, in 1990 and ’91. He moved on to Cal State Northridge and the University of Minnesota as a graduate assistant. He then served as offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at San Jose State, followed by a stint as the o-line coach at New Mexico.
From 2006-11, Bostad worked under Bielema at Wisconsin as tight ends coach for two seasons and later run game coordinator and offensive line coach. With Bostad at the helm, Wisconsin rushed for at least 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.
Bostad left with Chryst for the University of Pittsburgh during the offseason, but he was soon offered an NFL job and moved on to Tampa Bay. The biggest drawback for him could be not having any head coaching experience, but he is regarded as one of the best o-line coaches in the country. Would he be willing to leave the NFL for a college coaching gig?
• Chris Ash, defensive coordinator, Wisconsin
Is it possible Alvarez would be willing to stay in-house to make the Badgers’ next head coaching hire? If so, Ash could be the logical choice. He is in his third season at Wisconsin and second as the team’s co-defensive coordinator. In his first season as co-defensive coordinator, Wisconsin ranked No. 13 nationally in scoring defense and No. 15 in total defense. This season, the Badgers are No. 19 in scoring defense and No. 13 in total defense.
Ash spent eight seasons as a coach at Iowa State and two at San Diego State. He has predominantly coached the defensive backs. Many believe that Ash will coach Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl next month on an interim basis, so perhaps that could serve as a litmus test for the real job in the future.
Bielema was a defensive coordinator when he was promoted at Wisconsin, so Ash could follow in the same footsteps.
Along those lines, former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren isn’t expected to land the Badgers’ job because he accepted the head coaching position at North Carolina State on Saturday after leading Northern Illinois to two straight Mid-American Conference championships.
• Mel Tucker, assistant head coach, Jacksonville Jaguars
Tucker, 40, has extensive college and NFL coaching experience and — like everyone else on this list — has significant ties to Wisconsin. He played defensive back for the Badgers under Alvarez in the mid-1990s.
He has served as a defensive backs coach at Miami (Ohio), LSU and Ohio State. In 2004, he became the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator before moving on to coach defensive backs in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns in 2005. Tucker served as the Browns’ defensive coordinator in 2008 and then held the same position with Jacksonville from 2009-11. He also was the Jaguars’ interim coach for five games in 2011 after Jack Del Rio was fired in late November, going 2-3 in that span. In 2012, Tucker was promoted to assistant head coach in Jacksonville.
Tucker has earned the right to garner a serious look from Wisconsin. It simply depends on which direction Alvarez wishes to go.