Most coaches work their entire careers to become a coordinator in the Big Ten. Few of them even reach that far. Jim Leonhard has done it in one year.
To be clear, there is a lot more to this story than Leonhard’s one year ascension from defensive backs coach to the Wisconsin defensive coordinator job, which the Badgers announced Thursday. He was a prototypical Favorite Son as a player for Barry Alvarez, earning three All-Big Ten honors as a Badgers safety (pictured above). He then crafted a 10-year career as an NFL defensive back for various teams before returning to Madison in 2016, helping Wisconsin rank 10th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
That success led Paul Chryst to promote Leonhard to the big chair in Wisconsin’s defensive staff room.
Said Leonhard, to Wisconsin’s official team site:
“A year ago, if you were to ask me if this was going to happen, I’d probably would have laughed at you — not knowing exactly how it was going to go and how it would work out,” said Leonhard, who had no previous coaching experience prior to taking over the UW secondary last season.
“Paul brought me in and asked me if I was interested. He thought I was ready and he thought I could handle it. I was excited about the possibility and kind of wanted to see where I was at — if I really wanted to entertain the idea.
“It went a lot of places initially,” Leonhard acknowledged of his thought process, “trying to decide if it was the right time and if I was ready. The actual calling of the plays and designing everything, I feel very comfortable with. It’s the rest …
“It’s building the relationships with the guys and the staff. It’s making sure of all the details in the day-to-day (operation). It’s structuring practices and meetings. It’s kind of the whole big picture of it. I was just making sure I was going to be comfortable with that and the time that went along with it.
“The longer I thought about it,” said Leonhard, the energy building in his voice, “the more excited I got about the possibilities and what could happen and I jumped at the opportunity.”
“To me, for a coordinator, there has to be certainly a football knowledge level,” Chryst said. “Jimmy has far more than just a one-year level of coaching knowledge; X’s and O’s, scheme knowledge. In fact, I think he has got great football schematic knowledge.
“And, then, I think a big part of coordinating is connecting. It’s connecting the coaches and coming up with and coordinating the different units into a scheme. It’s connecting the coaches to players. It’s finding ways to connect players to players and how you play.
“It’s connecting how one unit plays off the other two units. In this case, how does the defense play off of and with the offense and the special teams? Jimmy has a skill that he can connect groups of people. As a coach, teacher, I thought he’d be really good last year at this time.
“Now, I know that he’s a heckuva teacher.”
Leonhard steps into one of the best springboard jobs in all of college football. Dave Aranda turned a respected run as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator into becoming the highest-paid assistant in college football as LSU’s defensive coordinator, and Justin Wilcox created the vacancy Leonhard filled when he became the head coach at California last month.