MADISON – From his desk in the football offices atop Camp Randall Stadium, Jim Leonhard can look down on the field and reminisce about those autumn Saturdays when he wore cardinal and white and ball-hawked his way into University of Wisconsin lore.
He rarely does.
“This place means a lot to me,” he says, “but it’s not one of those things when I’m staring at the field, thinking about those days all the time.”
Leonhard, 35, the Badgers’ defensive coordinator, is too busy preparing for the next challenge – this week it’s Ohio State and the Big Ten championship game – to wax nostalgic about his rise from small-town walk-on to All-American to 10-year NFL career, or about his meteoric rise through the coaching ranks.
Like Leonhard with the ball in his hands, it’s gone by in a flash.
In 2015 he was out of football, in 2016 he was Wisconsin’s new defensive backs coach and in 2017 he’s coordinating the nation’s No. 1 defense and is one of five finalists for the Frank Broyles Award, which goes to the top assistant in the country.
In Leonhard’s hometown of Tony, where locals remember him as the smartest, most instinctive, most naturally gifted athlete in every sport he played at Flambeau High School, nobody is surprised by his success.
“The thing is, everything Jim did, he was great at,” says Mark Stamper, who coached Leonhard in football and baseball. “He was a great athlete. Tremendous student. Really, really sharp. He was so good at everything he did.”
Leonhard scored more than 1,000 points as a point guard in basketball and at 5-foot-8 could slap the backboard. He played quarterback and safety in football and teammates recall his uncanny ability to shoot the gap and find the ball carrier and the way, even back then, he could get the defense lined up.
His best sport might have been baseball. A left-handed pitcher, his fastball touched 90 mph and he was such a good hitter that an opposing pitcher once intentionally walked him with two out and nobody on – in the first inning.
In Leonhard’s junior year, Flambeau’s baseball team made the WIAA playoffs and played at Birchwood, which led by one run in the…