MADISON, Wis. — It wasn’t that long ago that Jim Leonhard was in pads and cleats, playing safety for Wisconsin.
In fact, he’s still wearing the cleats.
“I call him The General, because he’s a boss; 5-foot-8 and he’s lining guys up, making calls, he’s consistent and he’s fired up,” safety D’Cota Dixon said. “Anything Coach Leonhard has to say to you, your ears are perked like a little kid. His IQ of the game and where he has been, you’re not going to question him.”
There’s no need for questions because all the answers the Badgers have given so far this season have been correct. Wisconsin is No. 1 in total defense and No. 5 in defensive efficiency. It’s allowing just 81.5 rushing yards per game and 13.4 points per game.
Last weekend the Badgers held Iowa to 66 total yards. The prior week, the Hawkeyes ran up 487 yards and 55 points in an upset of Ohio State. That performance has Wisconsin 10-0 for the first time in its history. And if Wisconsin is going to win the Big Ten and get into the College Football Playoff, it’s going to be on the strength of Leonhard’s defense.
For the 35-year-old Leonhard, in only his second year coaching and first as a coordinator, the success has come from knowing Wisconsin and, above all, relating to his players.
Receiving only Division II offers out of high school, Leonhard decided to walk on at Wisconsin, despite having opportunities to play both baseball and football at other schools. Without a grand plan to success, he jumped in head first and gave himself a year to contribute to the team as a marker of some sort of progress.
He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he would try to stick out in any way he could. After his first year, his next goal was to get on the bus and travel with the team, which he accomplished in short order. He would finish his career in Madison as a three-time All-American after grabbing a school-record 21 career interceptions.
Wisconsin doesn’t recruit the same way as Big Ten rivals Ohio State and Michigan. The Badgers don’t go after many highly ranked prospects and haven’t signed a recruiting class ranking higher than No. 33 in ESPN’s class rankings in the past four years. They go after recruits who fit their culture and develop them into stars.
Just like they did with Leonhard.
Despite his hefty accomplishments in college, Leonhard went undrafted, eventually signing with the Buffalo Bills. Much like his story of walking on at Wisconsin, Leonhard had to prove his worth by making an NFL team and trying to stick around for as long as he could.
“It’s a similar mindset of walking on as far as you know you have to prove people wrong, or maybe that one person right that had your back,” Leonhard said. “It’s just a mentality of you have to out work people, and having gone through that experience as a walk-on, it definitely helps you take that next step. Find a way to stick around and find a way to be successful.”
Leonhard played 10 seasons in the NFL, but with a mother and father who both coached, the coaching bug was there. Leonhard would teach rookies coming into the NFL and even started a youth football camp. When Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst was at Pittsburgh, he approached Leonhard about coaching in college.
“When I first coached [at Wisconsin], [Leonhard] was a player, so I had a chance to get to know him and observe him,” Chryst said. “When I was coaching and he was in the NFL, he would come back and was always great about being around the players and getting with them to learn. I always thought that if he was interested at the end of his playing career that he would be a great coach.
“… He is a classy person, smart person, great communicator and I think all the things that are important in coaching.”
When Chryst left Pitt for Wisconsin, Leonhard had retired from football and had been spending time around the Badgers’ program. When defensive backs coach Daronte Jones left for the NFL in 2015, Chryst approached Leonhard.
The timing was perfect as Leonhard knew he wanted to make Wisconsin his home, whether he was coaching or not. The opportunity seemed right and, once again, without much of a grand plan, he jumped head first into his new challenge.
Which is wear the cleats come in.
The Badgers’ defense has bought in to Leonhard’s style.
“I think, obviously, the fact that I’ve walked the halls and done it the same way they did it,” Leonhard said. “There’s only a handful of those physical freaks that were born to play this game, so everybody else, it’s finding that way that works for them. Finding it and embracing it, because it’s OK to be that guy that has to outwork everybody; there’s nothing wrong with that.”
So, if a player isn’t doing a drill properly or using the correct technique, Leonhard will jump in, with cleats on, to run the drill.
While Dixon won’t let his coach soon forget the time Leonhard played receiver against him, his young coach’s message is coming through loud and clear.
“I don’t know if he sees himself in me, but I definitely see myself in him,” Dixon said. “He has been able to transition it in a way where we have a call in a certain situation and if I make a mistake, he’ll show me the film of him when he was with the Buffalo Bills, and he’ll show me him doing it the right way. You approach him with that respect as a coach, but you approach him as a player because he has done it at the highest level and did it for a long time.”