When the stadium lights shine on Camp Randall and the bleachers shake with the weight of students jumping around, Jim Leonhard ’06 will be in the middle of the action, reminding his Badger players that football is meant to be fun.
At 34, Leonhard is the youngest defensive coordinator in the Big Ten and has just one year of coaching under his belt. His direction of the defense will be measured against coaches across the country who are years his senior.
“It is pretty special to be at this point in my career, where I’m at right now, really in only year two,” Leonhard says. “I’m just trying to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can.”
But what he lacks in coaching experience, he makes up for with a solid playing career rooted in his love of the game.
Once a small-town Wisconsin kid who hadn’t witnessed Game Day at the UW until his senior year of high school, Leonhard walked on to the Badger football team and proceeded to wow fans with his speed and defensive finesse at safety. He then played 10 seasons in the NFL with six teams, beginning with the Buffalo Bills and ending with the Cleveland Browns.
The lessons he carries with him from his time in the pros? First, there are different ways to achieve success, so flexibility is key to building team talent. Second, to be a great coach, you’ve got to be yourself.
“I was very fortunate to be around some coaches with very strong personalities,” Leonhard says. “They were who they were, and everybody respected it.”
As for his own style, Leonhard walks the line between cracking jokes and demanding discipline. And some wisdom from a former coach, Rex Ryan, guides his approach: football is a game meant for kids — one that college and professional athletes are lucky to still be playing.
“You’re supposed to enjoy it. We try to push that to our guys,” Leonhard says. “You can work really, really hard and enjoy it.”
Published in the Fall 2017 issue