Before we get started we want to make one thing very, very clear. Like, as transparent as we possible can be: THIS IS NOT A LIST OF CANDIDATES PURDUE AD MIKE BOBINSKI IS USING TO FIND THE NEW HEAD COACH. This is just who we believe Purdue would be smart to contact and would make a great hire for the football program. Some of these choices are realistic and others seem to be a shot in the dark. Either way, these are the guys that would have a lot of success at Purdue if given the chance. With that being said, let’s get into it!
*Note: This is a Drew and Jed collaboration. Jed did all the leg work, I’m providing my response to each coach. - Drew
Jim Leonhard | Former Defensive Coordinator | Wisconsin
Jim Leonhard was the next head coach at Wisconsin according to anyone affiliated with the football program in Madison. He stepped in as interim coach after the mid-season dismissal of Paul Chryst. Leonard went 4-3 as the interim coach and led the Badgers to a bowl game but Wisconsin surprised the college football world and announced Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell as the new head Badger.
Jim is a young and well respected coach and one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. He’s been under consideration for NFL defensive coordinator positions as well but passed on them to stay in Madison. Concerns here would be a Jeff Brohm type situation again of returning to Madison if Fickell does not make the fans there happy.
Leonhard was offered an opportunity to stay on staff as the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, but declined.
When the Purdue job opened up, Leonhard’s name was one of the first mentioned. He starred in the Big10 as a player, and has played an important role in Wisconsin’s sustained success over the last decade. He knows the region, doesn’t require a buyout, and comes with a large chip on his shoulder after getting passed over for Luke Fickell. He’s going to be a head coach at some point, and I’m not worried about him “heading home” any time soon.
Wisconsin is the college football inverse of Purdue. Either the Boilermakers turn into a grind it out, run first team under Leonhard, or he changes the offense he’s familiar with running. Being a defensive coordinator is much easier when your offense is on the field 70% of the game. A change in offense sometimes necessitates a change in defense. Is Leonhard adaptable, or would he attempt to turn Purdue into Wisconsin south?
Another concerning aspect about Leonhard is Wisconsin skipping over him for Fickell. He was the cheap, logical choice. No one would have faulted the Badgers for sticking with their interim head coach. Instead, they went out and pulled Luke Fickell away from Cincinnati, despite a 3.5 million dollar buyout (honestly not that high, but still a nice chunk of change). He’s been at Wisconsin since 2016, and they don’t think he’s ready yet. That gives me pause.
Feels like a bit of a round peg in a square hole situation. Purdue already hired a run first coach and then asked him to pass, and I’m still dealing with it in therapy. He’s a good coach, but I’m not sure he’s a good fit for Purdue, then again, I could be totally wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.
JaMarcus Shephard | Offensive Coordinator | Washington
Purdue Boilermaker fans are familiar with JaMarcus Shephard from his time coaching under Jeff Brohm in West Lafayette. Sheppard served as Co-Offensive Coordinator and was considered the best recruiter on the staff. He helped recruit one of the deepest wide receiver rooms in the country, featuring David Bell, Rondale Moore, and Milton Wright. Shephard was also considered one of the most personable and enthusiastic coaches on that staff during his five seasons at Purdue.
Shephard spent the 2022 season with the Washington Huskies under the direction of Kalen Deboer, considered an offensive innovator, coaching wide receivers and being named “associate head coach”. Former Indiana quarterback Michael Penix threw for 4,354 yards and 29 touchdowns and the Huskies had two 1000 yard receivers under Deboer and Shephard. He is still a familiar face in the Purdue Football facility and would likely have some holdovers from the current staff.
Shep is the people’s (and players) choice. He’s highly regarded in the locker room and helped recruit a large chunk of the roster.
As Jed mentioned, he would probably keep a large chunk of the current staff and could keep the roster from falling apart in the transfer portal. Recruiting would pick up with Shep at the helm, and he would help draw offensive talent out of the portal. If hired, I assume he would keep most of the defensive staff.
Purdue could get him on an incentive laden “prove it” contract, and wouldn’t have to pay a buyout. This could mitigate some of the risk. If it doesn’t work out, he wouldn’t be hard to get rid of. Bobinski would have leverage in contract negotiations.
The move from wide receiver coach to head coach is a big jump. Not unprecedented (see William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney) but you’re betting hard that Shep is an exception to the normal hiring rules. This is the risky, high ceiling, low floor choice. Things could go spectacularly well, or fall apart completely. Purdue has momentum at the moment, and things falling apart would set the program back several years.
If Purdue wants Shep, they can get Shep.
Ryan Walters | Defensive Coordinator | Illinois
Ryan Walters is considered one of the best up and coming assistant coaches in college football. Only 36, Walters played at Colorado, graduating in, 2008 and jumped immediately into coaching as a student assistant at Colorado and Arizona as a graduate assistant. He became the defensive coordinator at Missouri in 2018 at just 32 years of age.
Walters was hired at Illinois by Brett Bielema and made an immediate impact. This season the Illini were one of the best statistical defenses in the country. They are 2nd in total defense (263.8 yards per game), forced 30 turnovers (1st in the country), 74.1% red zone scoring defense (11thin the country), allowed only 98.4 yards rushing per game (8th in the country), and only 165.4 passing yards per game (6th in the country).
Walters was considered a finalists for the opening at Colorado before they hired Deion Sanders and was also considered a possibility for their defensive coordinator position. Rittenberg made mention of Walters numerous times during the search at Colorado and Walters is considered one of the best defensive minds in the country. There is a big youth movement at the NFL and college level but this may end up being something along the lines of what happened with Jeff Brohm and Louisville if Sanders flops at Colorado.
#Colorado might prioritize head-coaching experience in its search, but there will be a very strong group of assistant candidates, headlined by CU alum Ryan Walters, overseeing the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense at Illinois.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) October 2, 2022
Purdue could buy in on the ground floor of a coach that appears to be heading to the top. He’s young, energetic, and has excellent credentials. If Purdue wants him, they can probably have him for a mid-range “prove it” contract offer.
Like Leonhard though, he comes from a totally different coaching mindset than Purdue fans are accustomed to seeing. I don’t see him as being quite as set in his ways, but like Leonhard at Wisconsin, his defense was protected by Illinois ball control style of play. Maybe he can change his stripes, or maybe he tries to turn Purdue into a ball control team. I don’t like the prospects of that.
You’re going to have to convince me that he can put together a coherent staff. He’s going to need a ton of veteran support around him in order to navigate the Big10. I think he’ll be a good coach down the line, but I’m not sure Purdue is a great learn on the job opportunity.