Illinois profits from Wisconsin’s loss in adding Jim Leonhard

INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Leonhard won’t be on a sideline this season. He won’t be coaching players or on the practice field. His Saturday’s this fall won’t include being at Camp Randall Stadium or any stadium for that matter. No, the former Wisconsin interim coach and defensive coordinator will be at home with his family on the weekend for one of the first times in the last 20 years. But that doesn’t mean the 40-year-old won’t potentially have a role in who wins the Big Ten West in 2023. Not after it was announced Tuesday that he had agreed to join Bret Bielema at Illinois as a senior analyst.

Conversations between Bielema and Leonhard started right after the Illini hammered the Badgers in Madison last October. A day after that loss, Paul Chryst got fired and Leonhard ascended to the head job. While they continued to talk, things got more serious when Leonhard was passed over for the head coaching job in favor of Luke Fickell in late November.

“I kind of just said, ‘Hey, what are you looking for? I don’t have an on-the-field position, but would you be interested in an analyst role?’ So he and I just kind of had sort of these conversations and one thing led to another,” Bielema said Wednesday during Big Ten media days.

The role, originally announced as being solely on the defensive side of the ball, will actually involve all three phases of the game. Bielema sees Leonhard, who was the first player Bielema met when he took over as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator in 2004, as one of the smartest coaches in the game.

“He really won’t travel with us, he can’t do any on-field coaching, can’t do any recruiting. But he can be in the building,” said Bielema, who will have a first-year defensive coordinator in former Badgers defensive back Aaron Henry. “It’s going to be a great tool for me, because I think anytime I can get someone that I really respect on how they see the game, that brings a lot of great discussions.”

Leonhard’s decision took many in Madison by surprise. After not getting the full-time job, it appeared Leonhard would take the year off and wait until November or December for the coaching carousel to pick back up to find his next gig, whether it was as a head coach, a defensive coordinator in the NFL or at a high-profile college program. But, like it was when he retired from the NFL and spent a healthy portion of 2015 working behind the scenes with the Badgers, he couldn’t stay away from the game.

“Jimmy should be in football. I hated to see him step back from it,” said Barry Alvarez, who was Leonhard’s head coach with the Badgers. “When it happened, it didn’t surprise me. He played for Bret. Bret knows him. It’s a great deal for Bret to get someone like that, with his knowledge, to help with the program.”

How much Leonhard can help remains unclear. Bielema has brought in over-qualified analysts before, including former NFL coach Dave Wannstedt and former USC coach Clay Helton. Bielema himself served as a consultant with the New England Patriots after being fired at Arkansas. But the Leonhard hire hits close to home and his vast knowledge of the conference should pay off.

“Jimmy has been successful as a player and a coach in the league. He knows the league. I’m sure Bret is going to use him to evaluate his players, evaluate and help game plan, evaluate the teams that he’s playing,” Alvarez said. “It’s just another Big Ten defensive mind that’s in on game planning and evaluating.”

Some have suggested Leonhard decided to join Bielema to spite Wisconsin. But it wasn’t the university that made the move to go with Fickell. It was athletic director Chris McIntosh, something that long-time college coach and current CBS analyst Rick Neuheisel pointed out Wednesday.

“I don’t think Jim is angry at Wisconsin. He might be disappointed in Chris McIntosh. And it’s important when things happen with your alma mater that you separate (the two),” said Neuheisel, who played for UCLA and later coached the Bruins for four years. “It’s not UCLA that fired me. It was (former UCLA athletic director) Dan Guerrero that fired me. So Jim Leonhard needs to have this great reverence for his alma mater, but he can be disappointed that Chris McIntosh made the choice. And listen, if that fire burns in his belly, you can understand it.”

Leonhard will work in Champaign during the week — Sunday through Thursday — before coming back to Madison to spend Friday and Saturday night’s with his wife and three young kids. It’s close to best of both worlds for the Wisconsin native who built a home in the area following his NFL career. But it certainly seems like a temporary position, one that keeps him in the game and in the minds of those making hiring decisions later this year.

“I don’t know. Whatever Jimmy wants to do,” Alvarez said when asked what he thought the future held for Leonhard. “Jimmy has had opportunities. He’s had head coaching opportunities. He didn’t take a number of jobs because he didn’t want to leave Wisconsin or leave Madison. And so the (Illinois job), Bret tailored something for him that he can be there a few days a week and not have to move.”