KU football coach Lance Leipold learned about rebuilding a program as grad assistant at Wisconsin

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 1997, file photo, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, right, is congratulated by Iowa coach Hayden Fry after Wisconsin upset 12th ranked Iowa 13-10 in an NCAA college football game in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 1997, file photo, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, right, is congratulated by Iowa coach Hayden Fry after Wisconsin upset 12th ranked Iowa 13-10 in an NCAA college football game in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

Friday, June 4, 2021

As much as his successful runs leading both Wisconsin-Whitewater and Buffalo paved the way for Lance Leipold to be hired as the head football coach at the University of Kansas, another job from his past with far less responsibilities often comes to Leipold’s mind as he contemplates the Jayhawks’ future.

For a three-season stretch that began 30 years ago, Leipold was a graduate assistant Wisconsin. It so happened that during the earliest stages of KU’s coaching search in April, the man who gave Leipold that opportunity, longtime Badgers football coach Barry Alvarez, announced he was retiring from his stint as UW’s athletic director.

As Leipold consumed the retirement coverage, he kept seeing references to the first few years of Alvarez’s time as Wisconsin’s football coach — which overlapped with Leipold’s behind the scenes grad assistant job — and how far the program has come since then.


Nick Krug

New Kansas head football coach Lance Leipold answers questions during his introductory press conference on Monday, May 3, 2021 at the KU football indoor practice facility.

“Some of the parallels I felt were right here at the University of Kansas,” Leipold shared during his introductory press conference. “It kind of fit into what I felt would be a dream come true.”

Although winning seasons and bowl berths long have been commonplace for the Badgers, that wasn’t the case before Alvarez became the head coach. In the four years before Alvarez took over, UW was 9-36. Between 1960 and 1990, the Badgers only appeared in four bowls.

Leipold’s coaching career was just under way when he met Alvarez by chance, KU’s head coach said during a recent appearance on “The Jayhawker Podcast” with host Wayne Simien. Leipold considers his time as a UW grad assistant from 1991-93 his “first break” in the profession.

Alvarez was coming off his first year as the Badgers’ head coach and a 1-10 season when he hired Leipold. What Leipold got to watch from up close proved to be the foundation for the program’s rise to prominence. UW finished 5-6 in both 1991 and 1992. And then in 1993, the Badgers leveled up, going 10-1 and winning the Rose Bowl.

Learning under Alvarez made Leipold feel adept at turning around a program, something he did in the MAC at Buffalo over the course of the past six years.

When KU’s new head coach thinks about those old Badgers highlights from the early 1990s, Leipold also recalls what he values as a blueprint for turning a program around. He said Alvarez’s plan involved discipline, expectations and hard work, such as the time players had to invest in the weight room.

“I just kept seeing the parallels of where this could be,” Leipold said of the KU football program, “and what it will be some day.”

Building a program from the inside out, Leipold remembers Alvarez often talking about, involves getting stronger, particularly at the line of scrimmage.

“Everybody wants to know who’s scoring points and how explosive you’re going to be,” Leipold said. “But you still look across the board, the teams that are winning championships, it really starts with the offensive and defensive lines.”

As Leipold attempts to mimic a Wisconsin-esque rebuild at KU, he is sure many of Alvarez’s points of emphasis will apply to what lies ahead for the Jayhawks.

“Not beating yourself,” KU’s head coach said, was one such cornerstone. When Leipold has a team on the field, he stresses attention to detail, ball security, creating turnovers and preventing big plays.

“Doing the little things right” goes a long way, he learned early in his career as a grad assistant at Wisconsin. Correspondingly, Leipold said he wants his teams to show how disciplined they are by avoiding penalties and not putting themselves in bad positions due to a lack of focus.

All these years later, Leipold still deems the time he spent with the Badgers as a “very defining” experience for him as a coach. He learned back then recruiting locally is another key component of building a program up.

“Obviously we have another Division I football program in this state, where Wisconsin doesn’t,” Leipold said, referencing how KU will have to compete with rival Kansas State for in-state and nearby high school prospects. Still, the Jayhawks’ new coach said he wants his staff to do a great job of getting as many prospects as possible from the Sunflower State and bordering areas to sign with KU.