Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard announced Tuesday that he will not return to the Badgers' staff for the 2023 season as the program transitions to a new regime under Luke Fickell. Leonhard guided Wisconsin to a 4-3 mark over the final seven games of the regular season while serving as interim coach following the firing of Paul Chryst after a 2-3 start to the season.
Leonhard made an obvious candidate to succeed Chryst but did not ultimately land the head coaching job as the Badgers made one of the splashiest hires of this coaching carousel with Fickell, who posted a 57-18 record at Cincinnati over the past six seasons. Despite being passed over for the head job, a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week suggested that Leonhard planned to serve on Fickell's staff. But the 40-year-old former All-American Wisconsin safety and journeyman NFL player put that notion to rest with his Tuesday post on Twitter.
"It has meant the world to me to be able to pour my heart and soul into the UW Football program over the last 7 years," Leonhard wrote. "After discussions with my family and Coach Fickell, I will remain the DC through the bowl game but no longer be a part of the staff after the conclusion of the 2022 season. It has been an honor to coach these young men and thank you to all the fans who supported us along the way. On Wisconsin!"
Wisconsin will play Oklahoma State in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 27 in Phoenix to conclude Leonhard's seventh season on staff. He served as defensive backs coach in 2016 before receiving a promotion to defensive coordinator in 2017.
Despite the awkward ending to his tenure at Wisconsin, Leonhard has a bright future ahead in coaching, if he desires one. In his six seasons as defensive coordinator, Wisconsin finished in top-five nationally for total defense four times. His 2021 unit ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, allowing just 239.1 yards per game.
Leonhard turned down other coaching jobs over the years, choosing instead to stay loyal to his alma mater. The Ladysmith, Wisconsin native had a chance to become defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers after the 2020 season but turned it down to remain on the Badgers' staff. While NFL opportunities could arise for Leonhard again, it would be no shock to see him get in the mix for college head coaching opportunities.
While his 4-3 mark as the Badgers' interim coach did did not earn him the full-time job, that may have been as much about Fickell's availability as it was any sort of indictment on Leonhard's ability. Fickell built Cincinnati into a Group of Five power, making the Bearcats the first G5 school to earn a College Football Playoff appearance last season. In the process, he became a hot commodity on the coaching market.
The fact that Wisconsin went with Fickell over Leonhard is hardly an insult to Leonhard, who at just 40, could still blossom into a quality college head coach with time.
Retaining a defensive coach with Leonhard's track record would have been a nice move for Fickell both from a football standpoint and from a PR perspective given Leonhard's standing among Badgers' fans. But Fickell appears to be having little trouble hiring defensive assistants
Former Cincinnati assistants Mike Tressel, Colin Hitschler and Mike Brown are following Fickell to Wisconsin, according to ESPN. Tressel served as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator the past two seasons while Hitschler worked as co-defensive coordinator this past season. Brown was an offensive assistant for the Bearcats.