MADISON – The Wisconsin football program has turned to one of its own to complete its coaching staff for the 2016 season.
Head coach Paul Chryst on Saturday announced the addition of Jim Leonhard as the Badgers’ defensive backs coach. Few could be considered more knowledgeable on the ins and outs of the position than Leonhard, a 2015 inductee to the UW Athletic Hall of Fame who was one of the most successful players to ever patrol the UW secondary.
“I'm very appreciative to have Jim join our coaching staff,” Chryst said in a statement. “I'm excited for our players and coaches to be able to work with him and learn from him. What makes Jim special is his desire to teach, to help young men grow and to develop them to reach their full potential. He has a tremendous love and appreciation for the University of Wisconsin and our football program.
“Jim has always been a part of our Wisconsin family and I'm looking forward to him impacting this program in a new role.”
The product of tiny Tony, Wisconsin, arrived on campus in 2001 as an unheralded, 5-foot-8 walk-on and left four years later as a three-time first-team All-American. Leonhard played in every game of his four-year career, including each of the last 39 as a starting safety, en route to becoming one of the best defensive players in school history.
He matched UW’s school record with 21 interceptions in his career, the fourth-most in Big Ten history, and finished with 50 passes defended -- 25 of which came during his breakout sophomore season in 2002. His nation-leading 11 interceptions that year tied the Big Ten’s single-season record. That performance led to Leonhard becoming the first sophomore to be named Wisconsin’s team MVP since 1947.
Also an accomplished returner, Leonhard broke the Badgers’ single-season punt return yardage record twice and finished his career as the Big Ten’s all-time leader in punt return yards, with 1,347.
In addition to his three All-America nods and three first-team All-Big Ten honors, Leonhard was twice named a CoSIDA Academic All-America selection and also was a recipient of the National Football Foundation Postgraduate Scholarship.
Though he went undrafted, Leonhard put together a 10-year NFL career with Buffalo, Baltimore, the New York Jets, Denver, New Orleans and Cleveland. He finished his professional run as a safety and returner with 14 interceptions and more than 400 total tackles.
"He had great speed and he was a good athlete, but he was able to stay in the N.F.L. for 10 years because of what he had between his ears," UW athletic director Barry Alvarez told UWBadgers about Leonhard, who he coached during his college career. "He was as smart as anybody and smarter than a majority of the people. His football intellect allowed him to play that long and be an outstanding player."
Leonhard, 33, returned to the Madison area with his wife, Katie, and their children following his retirement after the 2014 season. He was inducted into the UW Athletic Hall of Fame last September.
"I love teaching football and I think I can help a lot of kids and there's no better place to do it than here at the UW," Leonhard told UWBadgers. "The biggest thing for me was finding out if it was the right fit as far as time (commitment). Family is extremely important to me. But having a great relationship with Coach Chryst — knowing the family man that he is and how important it is to him to be a dad, to be a husband — I felt comfortable with the decision to coach. I can honestly say I didn't want to do this anywhere else, I only wanted to do it at the UW."
In his first season as a coach, Leonhard takes over a unit that returns just one starter from the group that helped UW rank No. 2 nationally in opponents’ pass efficiency (96.8) last year, rising senior CB Sojourn Shelton.
Opponents completed just 49.1 percent of their passes (the third-best mark in the FBS) and averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt (sixth-best in the FBS) against Wisconsin’s defense last season. UW allowed only seven touchdown passes in 13 games, the nation’s second-lowest total.
Leonhard joins first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox as a new addition to UW’s coaching staff for 2016. His addition gives UW a total of four former Badgers on staff: head coach Paul Chryst, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, tight ends coach Mickey Turner and Leonhard.
The Badgers open spring practice on March 12 and will host the 2016 Wisconsin Football Spring Game at noon on April 23.