Jim Leonhard worked hard to have earned a demotion
Jim Leonhard shocked the Wisconsin Badgers community Tuesday night. Going against earlier reports that he’d stay next season, Leonhard announced he’d part ways with the program following their bowl game in December. The move appears to make more sense in hindsight, as the Badgers have lost several more recruits and lost players to the transfer portal in the past week. One insider suggested Wednesday that Leonhard would have faced a reduced role if he stayed with the Badgers next season.
Things need to change in Madison. The Badgers should be a perennial Big Ten West contender. At 6-6 this season, Wisconsin was nowhere near the top of a Big Ten conference they haven’t won in a decade. The Badgers’ early season disappointment is why Paul Chryst was fired. And while Chryst’s porous offense wasn’t Leonhard’s problem, the Badgers brought in a coach who knows how to clean house.
Luke Fickell understands that Leonhard is a rising star and a bright defense mind. That’s why the coach who led a non-Power Five school, Cincinnati, to a College Football Playoff appearance was willing to see if Leonhard would fit with the program he’s building at Wisconsin. But that didn’t work out, and the fairest thing to Leonhard might have been to move on. He was so close to a promotion and certainly didn’t deserve a demotion.
Leonhard faced a loss of freedom next season
Jesse Temple, who covers the Badgers for The Athletic, wrote about why Leonhard leaving the Badgers was the best thing for the Wisconsin native. Temple wrote that Leonhard would have faced new restrictions under Fickell’s program:
“There’s simply no way Leonhard, who also coached the team’s safeties, would have been granted the same freedoms moving forward. The fact more than a week had passed and Fickell wasn’t sure exactly how all the puzzle pieces would fit together was telling of the dilemma everyone faced. Among the coaches Fickell already has brought with him from Cincinnati are defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Mike Tressel and co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Colin Hitschler. Both men already are out recruiting for the Badgers.
Even though Fickell respected Leonhard enough to keep him on the staff, Leonhard’s role likely would have changed in a way that gave him less (or shared) responsibility, rather than more. For a man who has proven himself as a defensive coordinator and believed he was ready for a greater challenge, that was too much to overcome, no matter how much he loved the program.”
The former walk-on turned NFL pro has given the Badgers program all that they have asked for. Arguably, they could have asked for more. But Leonhard has earned a better job than the Wisconsin defensive coordinator position. And Fickell deserves a chance to build this team the way he deems fit. He had a lot of success at Cincinnati and needs to be free of restrictions himself so that he can put the Badgers program back on the map.
It’s a challenging situation for both parties. But necessary for the Badgers to compete for national respect again.