That Jim Leonhard’s name was mentioned more than any other during Luke Fickell’s Zoom call Sunday evening speaks to the one big question that has hovered over the University of Wisconsin football program for the past week.
Is Jimmy coming back to UW despite being passed over for his dream job, which went instead to Fickell?
That answer remains unclear, even though a report circulated over the weekend that Leonhard has made his decision and will return. I’m told a final decision hasn’t been made, and Fickell essentially confirmed that during a news conference that was supposed to be about the Badgers (6-6) taking on Oklahoma State (7-5) in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 27 in Phoenix.
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“I definitely opened the door for Jim to be here,” Fickell said, “and he’s got to kind of weigh the options.”
The silence from UW and Leonhard is telling, and no, it has nothing to do with a state law that requires jobs to be posted for seven days. Plus, why wouldn’t players have heard from Leonhard if he had made a decision? We reached out to several people over the past two days and none had been told by Leonhard that he was coming back.
Here’s what I do know: Leonhard has been offered the defensive coordinator role on the Badgers' staff. That staff also will include two Cincinnati assistants who are joining Fickell at UW: Mike Tressel, the defensive coordinator for the Bearcats, and co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Colin Hitschler. UW hasn’t officially announced the hires of Tressel and Hitschler — and it remains to be seen what their exact roles will be on Fickell’s new staff, especially if Leonhard stays — but they already are listed as employees on the school’s online directory.
There’s a lot we don’t know because Leonhard hasn’t returned text messages and voicemails left for him all week. But I’ve spoken with enough people over the past seven days — and spent way too much time thinking about a situation that’s been fluid all week — that some educated theories can be made at the end of a week mostly filled with silence from the important parties.
What’s the holdup?
The most logical explanation is that Leonhard is holding out for a deal that makes the most sense for him. I’m not talking about money, though that has to be a consideration for Leonhard.
He’s earned the right to be picky after being one of the hottest defensive coordinator names in the country for the past five years or so. As Fickell said of Leonhard on Sunday, “He’s had a million options and he’s got a lot of things he could do.”
Leonhard would love to stay at his alma mater, as he’s proven time and again over the years. He and wife Katie have three young boys and a nice home on a piece of land west of town. The idea of bouncing around from job to job doesn’t appeal to Leonhard, who was uprooted several times during a 10-year NFL career.
But this isn’t a no-brainer for him, either, because the situation has changed. UW coach Paul Chryst didn’t meddle in Leonhard’s business, giving him full autonomy with a defense that consistently has been ranked among the best in the nation in all the major categories.
Fickell is a coach with a defensive background and may not be willing to give Leonhard full say in what’s being run.
Other questions for Leonhard to consider:
How much say does he get on the hiring of defensive assistants?
How much time will he be expected to spend on the recruiting trail?
Is this interest real or is Fickell using him to bridge a gap as several UW players ponder their future? Having Leonhard around just might be the incentive they need to keep their toes out of the transfer portal.
Leonhard has been in a position of strength at UW for a while because of his value to the program, but I’d argue that bargaining power never has been greater than it is right now. UW athletic director Chris McIntosh put Leonhard in a tough spot Oct. 2 when Chryst was fired, but the carrot dangling out in front of the former UW great as he filled the interim role was the chance to run the program himself once the season was over.
My read on Leonhard over a stretch in which he went 4-3 and helped UW continue its bowl streak was that he seemed like a guy who thought he had done enough to earn the job and actually believed he was going to get it. McIntosh had something else up his sleeve, but would UW alienate Leonhard and his fans even more by not rolling out the red carpet for him to make sure he remained with the Badgers?
What does Fickell really want?
On the flip side, McIntosh can’t hire Fickell, then tell him to bend over backward for the program’s golden child.
If you’re Fickell, do you really give Leonhard full say on defense? Do you tell a guy you’ve known for, oh, a week that he can run whatever he wants and hire whomever he’d like? Are you concerned about a divide in the locker room between Leonhard loyalists and Fickell newcomers?
And where do Tressel and Hitschler fit in all of this?
Can this work?
If this were anybody other than Fickell and Leonhard, my answer would be easy: no.
But Leonhard loves this place. Always has, always will. And I could see him swallowing his pride and being a team player. Leonhard and Fickell could form a dynamic duo, the man many thought would get the job and the man who actually did. This program, as successful as it’s been, has untapped potential and maybe Leonhard wants to stick around and be part of helping UW unlock it.
That said, I’d be asking for a little something-something for my efforts if I’m Leonhard. That UW didn’t pay him anything extra for his eight-week stint in the interim role still blows my mind. He also should consider asking for a new two-year deal that would protect him if Fickell decides after one season that this isn’t working and wants to move in another direction.
From Fickell’s perspective, he’s seen this type of situation work in the past. In fact, he was in Leonhard’s shoes in 2011 after being passed over by Ohio State following one season as an interim coach. Fickell was hurt, just as I’m sure Leonhard is now. But he stuck around, served as Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator and parlayed that stretch at his alma mater into a sweet gig at Cincinnati.
When will we find out Leonhard’s decision?
I asked Fickell on Sunday when he needed an answer from Leonhard.
“There’s no rush,” Fickell said. “There’s no timetable on this thing. I think when you rush things, you don’t get things done the right way. And I think a lot of that has to do with the comfortability with all of us. So there is no rush.”
But this can’t go on much longer. I believe we’ll hear an answer Monday, one way or the other.
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