Jim Leonhard turned down the Packers, in part, due to ‘unfinished business’ with the Badgers

Jim Leonhard could be installing his defense with the Green Bay Packers right now, but he’s not. No, the 38-year-old Leonhard turned down that chance in February, choosing instead to keep leading the defense at Wisconsin. Meeting with the media Wednesday for the first time since making that decision, Leonhard was asked for his reasoning.

“I’ve said it a lot of times — I love Madison,” Leonhard said. “To me there was some unfinished business with the University of Wisconsin. I love this group of kids and want to continue to develop them. With COVID being the way that it was last year, I’d have felt a specific way about myself having left after that season. But I’m excited about being in Madison. I think we’ve got a great opportunity this coming season.”

It’s not that the job roughly 2 1/2 hours northeast of Madison wasn’t enticing. There’s a reason he reportedly took a second interview with Packers coach Matt LaFleur. Green Bay has gone to the NFC title game the last two years and had the top-scoring offense in the league this past season. The Packers boast the reigning NFL MVP in Aaron Rodgers, All-Pro level players in Davante Adams and David Bakhtiari, and a number of playmakers on defense — Kenny Clark, Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander — that make them among the favorites to finally breakthrough in 2021.

“Obviously it’s a huge opportunity,” Leonhard said. “Very humbled to be in the conversation for that position. It’s an organization, obviously being from the state, know a lot about and have a tremendous amount of respect for the way that organization operates. They’re right on the fringe of a Super Bowl and they have been for a while now. Definitely a difficult decision to have to make.”

But it’s one he made and certainly doesn’t appear to be dwelling on. Asked about that unfinished business he had at Wisconsin, a place where he starred as a three-time All-American safety in the early 2000s before returning as the secondary coach in 2016, Leonhard made clear of his ambitions with the Badgers.

“I came here wanting to win a national championship. I came here wanting to win the Big Ten as a player. Nothing has changed as a coach,” Leonhard said. “We haven’t done that since I’ve been back, so the goals haven’t changed. I feel like we have a group that can accomplish that. Things have to go well. We have to play good football. Much better football than we played last year. That’s the challenge every day.”

Wisconsin has come close three times during Leonhard’s tenure of winning the Big Ten. The Badgers had big leads in the 2016 and 2019 conference title games but saw those leads disappear in losses to Penn State and Ohio State, respectively. In 2017, they came up 43 yards short, as the offense stalled out in Ohio State territory when trailing 27-21 in the final minutes. Had they won that game, it would have meant a Big Ten title and a berth in the College Football Playoff.

“Whether it’s spring ball, winter conditioning or transitioning into the season much later this fall that is the goal,” Leonhard said of winning conference and national titles. “There is no ulterior motive. These players, we ask them to push themselves individually and push the team, become leaders and help develop on and off the field. That’s my job as a coach and I feel like we haven’t reached the ceiling. We’ve still got a long ways to go and I want to challenge to make that happen.”