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‘A bit of a scramble’: Wisconsin players and coaches have been riding an emotional rollercoaster since Sunday

MADISON – On Sunday morning, Jim Leonhard and the other Wisconsin assistant coaches were busily engaged in their weekly routine of reviewing the previous game.

Little did they know that UW’s athletic director Chris McIntosh met with Paul Chryst and told him he was being removed as head coach.

A few hours later, Leonhard was introduced as UW’s interim head coach, who was given the responsibility of fixing a struggling team that had just been smothered by Illinois and was 0-2 in the Big Ten and 2-3 overall.

Monday came the start of the healing process and preparations for a critical game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Northwestern (1-4, 1-1).

“Obviously a unique week,” Leonhard said on Tuesday. “Trying to focus the guys to give ourselves a great shot at winning a big game in the Big Ten West.

“It’s been a bit of a struggle the last few days to get everyone to settle down and settle down and deal with a lot of emotions when dealing with the staff and players.

“But I like where we are at this point in the week. I think we’re doing the best we can by giving our guys the best chance to go down and get a win.”

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Perhaps the #1 item on Leonhard’s to-do list was addressing the emotional state of the players, many of whom were stunned and upset to learn that Chryst had been fired five games into his eighth season as UW head coach.

When asked if he was wary of the emotional state of the players, Leonhard did not veil.

“Absolutely a major concern,” he acknowledged. “We have emotional guys. These are young guys. Even the staff. I mentioned it in the (Sunday) press conference.

“We are all here because of what Paul Chryst had done and the confidence he had in us. Very emotional on our floor, but also with (for) the players.

“At first I felt like I could say very little to this team to handle that emotion at the moment. It hurt a lot of guys. Had many conversations with the team, individually, as units.

“Everyone handles it a little differently. I think my message to the team started yesterday. Let it sink in. Get out of the building a bit. Let it hurt.”

The team returned to the facility on Tuesday morning.

“I brought them back in for team training,” Leonhard said. “I wanted to look them all in the eye at once and say that a big lesson we need to learn is how to compartmentalize the emotion.

“Don’t try to push it aside. Don’t try to make it disappear. But we need to be able to concentrate. These guys have a ton on their plate. Being able to compartmentalize the emotion of it to get what you need to do.

“It is no different as a staff. We should be able to do the same. Because the kickoff is set. The clock is ticking. We have to find a way to win and get things back in order.”

Leonhard was asked if it is equally important that he listens to his players and coaches, especially when they need to vent.

His answer: Absolutely.

“I think that’s a huge stretch,” he said. “I’m proud to be able to sit back and read a room. Now no different. Guys are going to hurt in different ways. Some get very emotional and then maybe realize they’ve gone too far. As a coach you just have to be able to navigate through that and understand that it is real. It’s there for a reason.

“I think we did a good job calming things down and getting things settled. That doesn’t change what happened. That doesn’t change the tough battle we have with this week that is unique to this program.

“But I feel like we’re moving in the right direction to give them the best chance of winning. We play against a team that has always caused us problems at their home. We have to play much cleaner football than we have been.”

Leonhard left open the possibility that he will continue to name the defensive plays, despite having more responsibilities on match day.

“What suits this team?” he said. “What is the reality of getting into a unique situation, having more things to do on match day. Is this possible? Is it smart? Is it the right thing to do? I have a lot of confidence in this defensive staff. Even if If I should take a step back, we will do what we have to do on race day.”

Leonhard did not say whether he plans to change the offensive staff led by Bobby Engram and added that he has not yet decided how he will fill the vacancy to coach the overall staff.

“It’s been more like, how can I support you?” he explained when asked about the wrestling offense. “We have taken a big chunk out of the offensive planning and operation. So, what’s the best way we can support you? Very soon (we) need to get this game plan together in a slightly different way.

“The response with Coach Engram has been amazing. I like guys how they’ve bounced back. Brace yourself and get to work.”

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Badgers Balancing Emotion, Preparation After Firing Chryst

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