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New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard helped turn safety D'Cota Dixon (14) into a playmaker.

Jim Leonhard is a home-run hire, Twitter reacts to the new defensive coordinator and Wisconsin loses a legend

Zach Heilprin

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Today is Friday, Feb. 3, and this is your Wisconsin Wake-Up Call.


Home-run hire

From the moment Jim Leonhard was named the secondary coach at Wisconsin, it was just a matter of time before he’d be named the Badgers’ defensive coordinator. That it happened so quickly – less than a calendar year since getting his first coaching job – probably surprised those who don’t know Leonhard’s story or the football savant he proved to be during his playing career.

A day like Thursday, when coach Paul Chryst tabbed Leonhard to replace Justin Wilcox, seemed inevitable. Essentially another coach on the field in his three years starting at safety for the Badgers, and his 10 seasons in the NFL, Leonhard was made for a moment like this and is ready for the chance to run his own defense.

A walk-on who turned himself into a three-time All-American, Leonhard continually overachieved and shot through limitations people placed on him. From tiny Tony, Wisconsin, to Madison to New York City, none of the challenges placed in front of Leonhard have deterred him. This latest obstacle, taking over a defense that has become one of the best in the country, is no more daunting than a 5-foot-8 Leonhard taking on pulling offensive linemen who outweighed him by more than 100 pounds. He will attack this task with the same vigor.

Some will say that hiring Leonhard is like Wisconsin having hired Chryst two years ago: he’s the “safe” hire. After watching Dave Aranda leave for LSU after the 2015 season, and then Wilcox taking the California head coaching job in January, outsiders will point to the stability that Leonhard would seemingly give Wisconsin. While there is truth to that, it’s also a puzzling thought considering what the Badgers have accomplished on that side of the ball over the last 12 years. Of the last six defensive coordinators, four have gone on to run their own program, while Aranda is now the highest-paid assistant in the country.

The so-called revolving door is circling because of the program’s success. It’s as if people somehow think having a less successful coordinator who stays around is better than having an ultrasuccessful one whom everyone wants. That thinking doesn’t make sense. And it certainly doesn’t apply in Leonhard’s case.

From the moment he intercepted future No. 1 overall pick David Carr three times in his first start at Wisconsin, Leonhard has been successful in almost everything he’s touched. That continued in 2016 with the secondary at his alma mater. He helped cornerback Sojourn Shelton regain his confidence, replaced two All-Big Ten safeties with two undersized guys who thrived as playmakers and oversaw a unit that contributed heavily to a Big Ten-leading 22 interceptions.

That he did all of that in his first year on the job speaks to his natural instinct as a leader. He’s got all the necessary qualities: confidence, intelligence and strong work ethic. Things won’t be perfect. Leonhard will make his share of mistakes, but he will learn from them. This is a home-run hire, even if it does come a little earlier than expected.

Rave reviews

Leonhard played at Wisconsin for four years, spent time with five different NFL teams and had his one-year coaching stint with the Badgers, so he’s crossed paths with plenty of people. In the wake of his promotion, current and future players, former teammates and media praised the move.

Wisconsin loses a legend

The Wisconsin hockey program has won six national titles. The man that led them to two of those, Jeff Sauer, passed away Thursday at the age of 73 after a battle with cancer.

Sauer had the unenviable task of following the legendary Bob Johnson at Wisconsin, taking over in 1982. He would win his first title that season and go on to take the Badgers to the NCAA tournament in 12 of his 20 years on the job, adding another national title in 1990. His impact on the game didn’t stop when he stepped away, as he continued to coach, including most recently overseeing the USA Sled Hockey team.

Sauer was very well-liked in Madison. Reporters who covered him said he was generous with his time, and those who interacted with him in the community felt like he cared when they spoke.

Sauer was a giant in the hockey world, and his contributions are still paying dividends in Madison. His former players – Tony Granato, Don Granato and Mark Osiecki – returned to town this year to help restore the program to the premier status it held when Sauer called the shots.

Catching up