Jim Leonhard plans to return to Wisconsin under Luke Fickell, likely as defensive coordinator

MADISON, Wis. – Jim Leonhard has decided to return to Wisconsin in 2023 under new head coach Luke Fickell, likely as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Leonhard met with Fickell on Wednesday and took time to mull his options. Leonhard was expected to meet with the team Saturday to tell the players about his decision, according to a source.

It is unclear whether Mike Tressel, who was Fickell's defensive coordinator/linebackers coach at Cincinnati, will be a co-coordinator with Leonhard. Tressel's hire hasn't been announced but he was on the road recruiting for UW on Friday.

Leonhard, 40, served as UW’s secondary coach in 2016 and took over as defensive coordinator in 2017.

From 2017-21, UW finished in the top five nationally in total defense and scoring defense four times.

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Wisconsin head coach Jim Leonhard, left, is shown during the first quarter of their game against Minnesota Saturday, November 26, 2022 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin head coach Jim Leonhard, left, is shown during the first quarter of their game against Minnesota Saturday, November 26, 2022 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.

During that run, UW’s average rank was third in points allowed (17.3 per game), first in total yards allowed (284.8 per game), first in pass-efficiency defense (110.5 rating) and third in rushing defense (103.4 ypg).

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Leonhard was UW’s interim head coach for the final seven games of the regular season, after Paul Chryst was fired on Oct. 2. UW went 4-3 under Leonhard but athletic director Chris McIntosh went with Fickell.

Fickell understands Leonard’s dilemma as well as anyone. He served as Ohio State’s interim head coach in 2011, after Jim Tressel resigned as head coach in May.

The Buckeyes finished 3-5 in the Big Ten and 6-7 overall under Fickell and Urban Meyer was named head coach before the 2012 season.

Fickell was retained as co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach and held that title through the 2016 season before he took over the Cincinnati program.

New Wisconsin head football coach Luke Fickell speaks at a welcome event Monday, November 28, 2022, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. He was previously head coach for six seasons at Cincinnati.



MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL
New Wisconsin head football coach Luke Fickell speaks at a welcome event Monday, November 28, 2022, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. He was previously head coach for six seasons at Cincinnati. MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

The possibility of Leonhard staying at UW was discussed before Wednesday.

"I told him," Fickell said Monday: " 'You’ve got a lot of things to think about. You’ve got to figure out where you want to be in five years and where you want to be in 10 years. … That is going to help you to figure out where you want to be next year.’

"That’s not easy. There’s a lot of things we all have to be able to get over. It takes a special person in some ways to get over a lot of those things.

"I had a hard time with it. But I do believe it was the right thing for me and the way that I did it and went out about it and it helped me become who I am.

"But my way is not always the right way. It’s not the way for everybody else. But that is what it really comes down to. What is in your heart and what is in your mind?"

Leonhard has revealed that by deciding to stay at UW.

McIntosh saluted the work of Leonhard on the night Fickell was formally introduced as head coach.

"Jimmy, first and foremost, did an incredible job for the program," he said. "Stepped into a circumstance that was incredibly difficult and over-delivered.

"Jim’s ability to step into a program after an incredibly difficult transition and inspire this team to play with passion and with heart the way they did throughout the season was incredible."

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Jim Leonhard plans to return to Wisconsin under new coach Luke Fickell