It had become the Big Ten’s sexiest rental and conundrum, the house at the end of the cul-de-sac with the perfect yard and the perfect porch and the perfect garage in the perfect neighborhood.
And yet, over the each of the last two Januarys, without fail, the lights in the window would go dark, and that “VACANCY” sign would turn up again, begging for another tenant, another chance to be loved.
Vince Biegel played for four different defensive or co-defensive coordinators in at the University of Wisconsin from 2012-16, which is nuts. Actually, it’s the sort of turnover you see in presidential cabinets, not with one of the tent-pole slots inside the best football program in the Big Ten’s West Division.
Time will tell if Jim Leonhard stops the most curious revolving door on Monroe Street, although, at first blush, that seems to be the point. The Badgers’ newest tenant in the coordinator’s chair, announced late Thursday afternoon, is young (34) and, after 10 years with six franchises on the NFL hamster’s wheel, is looking to settle the heck down. Which is good.
He’s also family, which is better, having risen from a feisty 5-foot-8 walk-on at Wisconsin to an All-American and three-time All-Big Ten safety in a blink. A native of Tony, Wis., Leonhard played like a sawed-off son of a gun with a chip on his shoulder and a Pentium chip between his ears, always at the right place at the right time.
He was also hell on wheels, having picked off 11 passes as a sophomore in 2002, tying a Big Ten single-season record, and finished his collegiate days as the Big Ten’s all-time leader in punt return yards (1,347). It’s a Mad City legend that Leonhard won not just one, but two slam dunk contests against his taller Badgers teammates.
As a pro, he was as Rex Ryan favorite for all the right reasons, a point guard in the secondary, directing traffic on defenses that included such names as Ray Lewis, Von Miller, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis. In 2014, his final season with the Browns, Leonhard famously kept a sheet of the best players he ever worked with in an old-school spiral notebook, a personal dream team. When Cleveland.com asked then-Browns coach Mike Pettine who Leonhard told him he’d have picked as his dream coordinator, the coach replied:
“(He) said, ‘I’ve got bad news for you. I’m the defensive coordinator. I’ll let you guys be my quality control coaches.’”
Demure, he is not.
There will be inevitable hiccups, although the next chess game Leonhard loses might well be the first.
So the swagger is back, not that it ever left. In his first season as the Badgers’ defensive backs coach, Wisconsin’s secondary this past fall racked up 22 picks, tied for the second-highest total in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the most for the program since 2002 — when Leonhard himself accounted for half of them.
It’s also a potential victory for continuity, something that could not be guaranteed if a coordinator was brought in from outside — even if said outsider had a résumé as strong as Leonhard’s predecessors, Justin Wilcox (2016) and Dave Aranda (2013-2015).
That we’ll-put-the-fear-of-God-in-you 3-4 defensive front, penetration coming from every conceivable angle, has become almost as much a part of the Madison experience as State Street. Despite the staff unrest, since 2012, the Badgers have yet to place a defense outside the national top 25 in opponent points per drive by FBS foes (they were No. 41 in 2011). Wisconsin is the new Linebacker U, and Leonhard has allegedly promised, as Wilcox did, not to try to fix what is most assuredly unbroken.
There will likely be egos to salve, starting with outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar, who reportedly was also a candidate and who brought prior Big Ten and Big 12 coordinating experience to the table. There will be inevitable hiccups, although the next chess game Leonhard loses might well be the first.
Wisconsin is not your standard learn-as-you-go stop, but neither is Leonhard your typical candidate. Like head coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, he’s a Badgers alum, someone who doesn’t just drink the Kool-Aid. He bleeds it.
This isn’t a way station. It’s home.
For the last three seasons, the Badgers’ defense was heavy on studs and low on stability. If the narrative a year from now is on turnovers in the autumn and not on turnover in the winter, then Chryst might have won the final major battle of the Big Ten’s silly season without firing so much as a single shot.