Jim Leonhard stayed with Badgers for players, to settle ‘unfinished business’


COLTEN BARTHOLOMEW [email protected]

For Jim Leonhard, finding motivation to keep working has never been an issue.

That trait led the former walk-on to become an All-American safety at the University of Wisconsin and a 10-year NFL player. It’s also what drove him to become a coach, one who’s entering his fifth season as the defensive coordinator as the Badgers started spring practices this week.

Leonhard turned down an offer to become the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator in February, a decision he told reporters Wednesday was difficult.

“I’ve said it a lot of times: I love Madison,” Leonhard said. “To me, there’s some unfinished business with the University of Wisconsin. I love this group of kids and I want to continue to develop them. And with COVID being the way it was last year, I’d have felt a specific way about myself having left after that season. But I am excited about being in Madison and I think we got a great opportunity this coming season.”

Leonhard earned All-America honors three times (2002-04) as a player at UW but never won a Big Ten Conference championship. Since he came back to the program as a coach in 2016, the Badgers haven’t won the league title despite three trips to the title game.

For all the successes Leonhard has had as the program’s coordinator — including nine defensive players drafted to the NFL and statistical rankings in the top-10 nationally — it’s the fact UW hasn’t yet reached the heights of the college football world that drives him.

“I think all coaches, the players, the staff, we have the highest goals here,” he said. “I came here wanting to win a national championship, right? I came here wanting to win the Big Ten as a player, nothing’s changed as a coach. We haven’t done that since I’ve been back, so the goals haven’t changed. I feel like we have a group that can accomplish that.”

The Packers weren’t the first NFL team to come calling for Leonhard. The Los Angeles Rams reportedly wanted to poach him in the 2019 offseason after the Badgers narrowly lost the Rose Bowl to Oregon.

But Green Bay did have a particular appeal to the Tony native, and he said it was a hard decision to turn down the offer to join Matt LaFleur’s staff.

“Obviously, it’s a huge opportunity. Very humbled to be in the conversation for that position,” Leonhard said. “It’s an organization, obviously being from the state, (I) know a lot about and have a tremendous amount of respect for the way that organization operates. And they’re right on the fringe of a Super Bowl and they have been for a while now.”

In Leonhard’s four years as defensive coordinator, the Badgers have the third-best scoring defense in the FBS (17 points per game allowed), second-best total defense (294.5 yards per game allowed), second-best passing efficiency defense (109.7) and the second-best third-down defense (30% conversion rate allowed).

UW coach Paul Chryst knows Leonhard’s a rising star in the coaching world and outside interest won’t end if Leonhard continues leading top-tier defenses. But he said he knows Leonhard made his choice for the right reasons.

“For him, it never was in question whether this program meant what it meant to him,” Chryst said.

“I’ve known that even before he got into coaching and when he was here just coaching the defensive backs. A big reason why — I shouldn’t speak for him — but I do think a big reason why he’s doing this is because this place means a ton to him. And I think that he believes he can help, help our players. So we’re very appreciative of that and love being around him.”

Leonhard’s affinity for his players helped keep him on the sidelines. The players’ excitement for him staying with the program was evident by their social media posts that morning.

He believes the group can be special, and he said he’s going to push them to be more consistent and more dynamic in their roles this spring. He’s here for them, and he’s determined not to let an unaccomplished goal gnaw at them by the time their careers are done.

“I try to earn respect with that group and hopefully they trust me and understand what I help them with,” Leonhard said. “They all have goals of reaching the highest level here at Wisconsin and further. Honored to feel that they think I’m the right guy to do that.

“I’m excited about them — these are kids we all recruited here because of who they are, the character they show on top of their football abilities. So anytime you earn their respect as a coach, you know you’re doing something right. Having some confirmation with their reactions to that, you know, makes you feel good and now I have more work to do to help continue to push this group.”

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