Just 24 hours ago, nobody was thinking about the possibility that the Wisconsin Badgers would be looking for a head coach. Why would they? Bret Bielema had just finished hanging 70 points on Nebraska and punched his team's ticket to Pasadena for its third straight Rose Bowl in the process.
So now let's take a look around the nation and try to figure out who's next in the cardinal and white on the sidelines for Wisconsin. You'll notice a theme.
Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh Head Coach
Paul Chryst has only been at Pittsburgh for one season, but c'mon, the Panthers must be getting used to this business of coaches leaving after a year, right?
Half-jokes aside, Chryst kept Pittsburgh afloat in its first year, leading the Panthers to a 6-6 record and a spot in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Ole Miss. More importantly, he's the former offensive coordinator of the Wisconsin Badgers, having helped create the steamrolling death machine that was the ground game through 2011.
Chryst is obviously head-coaching material in other programs' eyes, and if Bielema had bolted for Arkansas a year ago, Chryst would have likely been the front-runner to replace him. Even one Wisconsin lineman wants to see it happen:
Paul Chryst! Paul Chryst!— Ryan Groy (@disGROYer79) December 4, 2012
That's Ryan Groy, starting left guard for the Badgers. And he's only a junior, so he's still got some skin in the game. So take that for what it's worth.
Chris Ash, Wisconsin Defensive Coordinator
We'll know more about how Wisconsin handles the Bielema departure when it all becomes official, but for now, it sure looks like Chris Ash is the most head-coach-ready member of the Wisconsin coaching staff. He led a surprisingly effective defensive effort for the last three seasons, which was key for the Badgers to be a winning program and not just a scoring program.
Ash is a Midwesterner through and through, having been born and raised in Iowa before playing at Drake and then rising through the coaching ranks at Iowa State. He spent two years at San Diego State before coming back to Iowa State in 2009. Wisconsin hired him shortly thereafter and he's been an integral part of the Badger coaching staff ever since.
ESPN.com's Big Ten bloggers certainly think he'll get the first look:
Would be very surprised if Bielema allowed to coach Rose, but who knows. D-coordinator Chris Ash clear choice as interim coach.— Rittenberg/Bennett (@ESPN_BigTen) December 4, 2012
One strong performance by Ash there and a positive set of evaluations from his players, and he could be the leader in the clubhouse come Jan. 2.
Dave Doeren, North Carolina State Head Coach
Yes, Dave Doeren just signed a contract worth $1.8 million a year at North Carolina State. Wonder what the buyout is? Bet Wisconsin's about to find out.
Doeren was previously Wisconsin's defensive coordinator before heading to Northern Illinois; he then guided NIU to a 23-4 record in two seasons and recorded a MAC championship with NIU before accepting a job at NC State a few days ago. NIU's in the Orange Bowl thanks to Doeren. That's amazing. And he's still only 41.
But again, Doeren's contract is "only" five years and $1.8 million per. That can't be prohibitively difficult for Wisconsin to buy out. And it's awfully hard to imagine that Doeren would have taken the NC State job if he had known Wisconsin's was going to open up less than a week later. So why not ask if he's interested?
Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin Athletic Director
OK, Barry Alvarez isn't a long-term solution for Wisconsin. He's turning 66 later in December and hasn't coached since 2005. He's been happy as an athletic director and presided over arguably the best stretch of athletics in Wisconsin history.
That said, Alvarez was one hell of a football coach, too...and he's probably every bit as capable of going full Bill Snyder and wrecking opponents in Round 2 as any other retired coach in the nation.
Some Wisconsin players are not-so-secretly hoping Alvarez at least takes over for the Rose Bowl. Here's what one Wisconsin fan site recently tweeted:
One UW player in a text: 'We would love Barry to coach us in Pasadena.' Me: 'Why?' Player: '3-0'— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) December 4, 2012
That 3-0 is a reference to Alvarez's Rose Bowl record; he was undefeated in Pasadena while going 8-3 in bowl games overall. Again, he was one hell of a football coach. If he's got enough in his batteries for a couple of years of coaching while the program waits for a worthy candidate to come through the ranks and get hired, this could be the perfect fit.
So, did you notice a theme? Yep, those are all recent or current Wisconsin coaches. That's not an accident. If this isn't the best era of Wisconsin football in program history, it's awfully close, and there is no need to have an outsider blow up the structure to fit "his vision" if Wisconsin doesn't have to.
Fortunately, there are candidates out there that can keep up what Wisconsin has going, so whomever Alvarez tabs should inherit one of the healthiest programs in the Big Ten.