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Badgers' DC Jim Leonhard doesn't allow rumors to deter his focus
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Badgers' DC Jim Leonhard doesn't allow rumors to deter his focus

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Jim Leonhard AP Photo 2018

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has been the subject of rumors for a number of head-coaching vacancies during his tenure with the Badgers. But his honest discussions with players and coaches has helped keep the team's focus on its upcoming bowl game. 

His players can practically set a timer to it at this point.

As soon as a Power Five head coaching job becomes available, it will be just a few hours before University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s name is on that program’s short list of targets.

This isn’t new for Leonhard or for the Badgers. When a unit has the success Leonhard’s defense has had at UW, outside interest will grow. So far this season, Leonhard has been linked to the coaching vacancy at Illinois, a spot that was filled by former UW coach Bret Bielema.

What makes programs’ pursuit of Leonhard unique is he doesn’t shy away from discussing his future with his players and those around him.

“I think whatever he tells us, we can trust him,” senior safety Scott Nelson said.

Scott Nelson mug


“And so it’s not like one of those things where you hear stuff and he doesn’t acknowledge it. He’s very open with us and stuff like that. So just being able to have that open communication, he treats us like adults, he doesn’t kind of try and hide us from stuff that he knows we hear and see. But I mean, we know him and we know what he tells us what he says that he wants.”

The Badgers (3-3) will likely have to hear more rumors swirling about Leonhard after they play in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against Wake Forest (4-4) on Wednesday.

Leonhard has said repeatedly Madison and the UW program are home for him. Even as potential suitors such as Alabama, Texas A&M and others have tried to lure him with more money or a promotion, Leonhard values what UW provides him.

“I understand what UW’s all about,” Leonhard said. “I grew up here. This was kind of the dream job to come back and coach.

“Also being on a lot of different teams, you just realize the culture is different every single place. Not bad — it doesn’t mean it’s bad or good, just understand it’s different. There is a comfort level here, understanding what this place is about and how I’m allowed to coach and act and recruit, kind of the whole big picture of what college football is.”

An ‘amazing’ way of teaching

Leonhard’s coaching career may be short — he’s in his fifth season on the UW staff and fourth as the defensive coordinator — but it’s an accomplished one.

Over Leonhard’s first three seasons as coordinator, UW’s defense ranked fifth out of 127 FBS teams with 112.3 rushing yards allowed per game, and the unit finished in the top five of those rankings twice. His unit this season leads the FBS in total defense (263.5 yards per game allowed) and third-down defense (25.4% conversion rate).

But Leonhard is able to relate to players with first-hand experience. He was a walk-on safety who started 39 games for the Badgers and became a three-time first-team All-American. He parlayed that success into a 10-year career in the NFL.

“He seems to have the answer to everything that you’ve got to ask him,” junior cornerback Faion Hicks said. “For somebody that played so long in the league, 10 years, he’s seen it all. So any questions you could have, he can point you in the right direction and he can show you what you’re looking for. It’s great to have a coach that played that long in the league because he understands it. He understands it from a body standpoint or a technique (standpoint).”

Players say Leonhard doesn’t bring up his playing days accolades often, but they know he’s teaching them techniques and schemes that have roots in his experience at the college and pro levels, especially for members of the secondary. Leonhard is still the team’s defensive backs coach as well as the defensive coordinator and play-caller.

“I think it’s very cool being in the meetings with him,” said senior safety Eric Burrell, who has been at UW since the beginning of Leonhard’s coaching tenure.

“We learn a lot from him. Just watching film with him and trying to get better, I think he has a good feel for where guys are at. Obviously (some) guys are a lot smarter or more mature than others, but he just figures out where you’re at and how to go about it. Every guy learns different, so I think it’s very amazing the way that he teaches people.”

Continuing to learn

Despite the success his side of the ball has had in his tenure, Leonhard has continued to push to add more to his repertoire.

That drive to become better is a trait that served as the backbone of his playing career and it’s translated well into his coaching.

“I think we’re all continuing to improve and I think Jim’s no different,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “Some of the things are small: How you organize things, or communicate differences in how you go about game-planning. I think he does a really good job of drawing from other guys on the staff and getting their input.”

UW has had continuity in its defensive coaching staff under Leonhard, and those staffers see Leonhard’s mark rub off on UW’s defense.

“Knowledgeable, smart coach, does a great job with the players,” defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said. “He’s a players’ coach in terms of doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low, just steady. Doesn’t need to yell and the players appreciate that. I think he gets the most out of not just his position, but the defense as a whole. Just being kind of who he is has helped the defense tremendously.”

Chryst has been in Leonhard’s position before. During his tenure as UW’s offensive coordinator from 2005-12, Chryst was regularly brought up in head-coaching searches. But, like Leonhard, his connection to Madison led him to stay put longer than many expected.

“It’s a credit to Jim and people are taking notice of it,” Chryst said of the rumors. “And it’s part of it, and it’s a good part of it. But it’s not necessarily a … it’s probably as much of a distraction as someone chooses to make it, and that hasn’t been the case.”

Appealing as being a head coach or other opportunities may be, Leonhard said he’s focused on continuing to raise UW’s program. Leonhard’s recruiting has helped land recruits such as Jake Chaney and Ricardo Hallman in the 2021 class.

“A big part of me coaching is wanting to come back here and make this place better,” Leonhard said. “I had a great experience as a player and want to give that back to the next generation.”

As more coaching vacancies come available this offseason, Leonhard’s name is sure to be brought up as a candidate. Regardless of if or when the day comes that Leonhard leaves UW, his impact on the players he’s coached is undeniable.

“He’s only getting better, he’s only getting us better, so I think when the time comes, probably later down the line, he’ll be a head coach somewhere if he decides to take that path,” Burrell said. “For right now, what he’s doing is unbelievable. He could go anywhere in the country, but he decides to be here … I’m excited to have him on my side.”

Breaking down the Badgers’ 2021 recruiting class


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