Anthony Leonard always thought he would get into coaching -- he just didn't expect that it would come so soon. The McKeesport, Pa., native had a solid careerat linebacker at West Virginia, recording 104 tackles from 2007-10, and expected that to propel him to the NFL level. That didn't work out as planned, leaving him in a situation faced by many players who find their pro dreams at an end.
"It's something that I knew I would eventually do, but I thought I was going to have a ten-year career in the NFL," the affable Leonard said with a laugh. "When I was narrowing down my college choices it came down to one that had a coaching program. That was what I always wanted to do."
Although the lengthy pro career didn't pan out, Leonard took advantage of his scholarship, earning his degree and paying attention not only in the classroom but also to the way his coaches taught the game. Combined with the narrow age gap between he and the players he is working with, he has forged what he thinks is an excellent bond -- albeit one with boundaries.
"It does help a lot being that I just played here and played on good teams," the defensive GA acknowledged. "The kids know the ground. When we're on the field I'm a coach, but when we are off the field I can laugh and joke around. The adjustment has been perfect. The main thing for me was learning how to teach what is trapped in my head. I was being taught all my life, but now I had to teach and get people to listen to it and buy in to it. It was trading in the helmet for the headset."
As might be expected, Leonard drew on his experience with his former coaches to help mold his own approach, but there's also more than a pinch of his own personality involved. Watch him on the field, and it won't be long until you see the big smile or hear a booming laugh as he interacts with the Mountaineers who are just a few years his junior. He can be tough when the situation demands, but his normal mode of operation sees his natural demeanor shine through.
"It's no different than a player looking up to other great players," he said of the process he used to build his coaching approach. "You take a piece from everyone and mold it all together. I had a little bit of Jeff Casteel, Tony Gibson, Rich Rodriguez, George Shehl and all the other coaches I had, both in basketball and football. And I use everything I've learned about West Virginia, both as a player and more recently. The kids respond to it. They take it in, they understand it, and they respect it."
While he's by no means a grizzled veteran, Leonard does have a bit of historical perspective on the WVU program, which is also something he tries to share with the current Mountaineers. Respect for the new facilities and improvements, where WVU has come from in terms of opponents and conference affiliation -- it all plays into his coaching approach. The base for that knowledge began during his high school recruitment, when he researched the schools who offered him scholarships to find the best fit for his situation, and continues even today, when he has absorbed the information shared from the speakers head coach Dana Holgorsen has brought in to educate the team on the history of the state. In doing so, he's gained a greater appreciation for it himself while also strengthening the bond he has with the players on the team. While the facilities he played in certainly weren't bad, the ones the players have now are excellent, and he wants to make sure they acknowledge what they have.
Where Leonard goes next is anyone's guess -- graduate assistants have limited timeframes at one school -- and he's in his second season with WVU already. With a number of former WVU players or GAs coaching in the region (Shehl, Pat Kirkland, Garin Justice, Mike Compton, John Pennington and Markell Harrison just to name a few), it wouldn't be a surprise to see him nab an assistant job somewhere nearby, where he knows the lay of the land. For now, though, he's still working to hone his craft -- and making this year's WVU team the best it can be.