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Jim Leonhard turns down Packers' offer, says he's staying with Badgers
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Jim Leonhard turns down Packers' offer, says he's staying with Badgers

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Jim Leonhard - staying at UW

Jim Leonhard, a 10-year NFL veteran, turned down the Packers' offer to be their defensive coordinator and will stay at the University of Wisconsin. 

GREEN BAY — For Jim Leonhard, there was no wrong answer. But in his mind, there was a right one.

That’s why the University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator informed Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur on Friday night he would be staying put in Madison, rather than accepting LaFleur’s offer to take over the Packers’ defense.

“It was me choosing UW,” Leonhard told the State Journal Saturday morning. “I want to stay at UW. I want to be at this level right now. Extremely flattered. Awesome opportunity. But it was not the right time for me to go back to the NFL.”

But it was close.

"It was very real," Leonhard said. "I was about out the door."

According to Leonhard and his Madison-based agent, Tim Valentyn, Leonhard and LaFleur first spoke on Tuesday via Zoom video conference. Leonhard then came to Green Bay on Thursday and spent the day with LaFleur, who parted ways with Mike Pettine following the Packers’ season-ending loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Jan. 24 NFC Championship Game.

Pettine, first hired by previous coach Mike McCarthy in 2018, had allowed his contract to expire after the season, and LaFleur admitted the two had a “miscommunication” on the defensive call for the Buccaneers’ final play of the first half of the NFC title game, resulting in a 39-yard Tom Brady-to-Scotty Miller touchdown, putting the Packers in a 21-10 halftime hole.

After parting ways with Pettine on Jan. 29, LaFleur cast a wide net for his next coordinator, speaking to a host of candidates and getting input from other coaches he trusts around the league on others he should interview. ESPN.com reported earlier in the week LaFleur had begun informing some candidates that they hadn’t made the initial cut and that second interviews were underway.

LaFleur then zeroed in on Leonhard, a three-time all-American safety at UW who played six of his 10 NFL seasons on teams where Pettine coached. While not a Pettine clone, the fact Leonhard quickly became the choice would indicate LaFleur, who’d said on Monday that the Packers “just needed some new leadership on that side of the ball,” felt the defense didn’t necessarily need an overhaul of its scheme.

LaFleur and Leonhard hit it off during their time together, and the sides discussed contract numbers on Thursday before Leonhard ultimately decided on Friday to stay with the Badgers.

“I’ve got a ton of respect for Green Bay as an organization, and I’ve said my piece about UW a lot of times. I love it here, and I don’t necessarily want to leave,” Leonhard said. “These aren’t opportunities I’m actively searching for — but they’re real.

“I know the NFL. I know the good, I know the bad, being in there for 10 years. I understand what the NFL is. It’s exciting. Right now, I just feel like UW is the right place. I’m not saying it will always be. But right now, this is where I want to be, at this level, with this group of kids.

“I’m flattered. It was awesome. I’ve got a lot of respect for Matt and for what they’re doing. And obviously everybody knows how close they are to winning the Super Bowl. It was an awesome opportunity to get. I went into it knowing it was a longshot to leave. Even though it was close, this is where I want to be right now.”

Asked if he spoke to Pettine about his experience in Green Bay before making his decision on LaFleur’s offer, Leonhard replied, “I had a lot of conversations with a lot of people. I have a ton of respect for ‘Pett,’ the guys he was coaching with. I know a number of guys on that staff. I had a lot of conversations to figure out where that franchise is and to be able to get behind the walls. I respect Coach LaFleur, I think Green Bay’s always been known to be one of the most straightforward organizations in sports. But I’m not going to lie to you and say I didn’t have those conversations.”

Under Leonhard, the Badgers' defense has consistently ranked with the best in the country. In his five seasons on staff, the last four as defensive coordinator, the Badgers have the third-best scoring defense in the FBS (17 points per game allowed), the second-best total defense (294.5 yards per game allowed), the second-best passing efficiency defense (109.7) and the second-best third-down defense (30% conversion rate allowed).

Also factoring into Leonhard’s decision? How the COVID-19 pandemic threw the 2020 season into disarray, and how it figures to impact the 2021 NFL and college seasons, too.

“To me, it’s all timing. With where I’m at with my family and everything, we didn’t want to make the change. We don’t want change right now,” Leonhard said. “That could change in a year. It truly can. But right now, I feel most comfortable here. I think we’ve got a great group of coaches great group of players.

“This last year for everyone involved in athletics, it was like no other. For that to be my last experience here at UW and to start over in the same conditions — obviously we’re a little farther (into dealing with the pandemic), but how much? — to make this move during this time, having had the experience we had to go through this last season, I don’t feel comfortable doing that. That would be a disservice.”

The 38-year-old Leonhard and his wife, Katie, have three sons — Reese, Graham and Pierce — and Leonhard said his family was happy to support whatever decision he made.

Asked how LaFleur took the news that he had decided to stay wat UW, Leonhard replied, “We had a conversation, and I told him it was a great experience to go through. And he understood. I had a decision to make. and they have decisions to make.

“There was no wrong answer. It truly came down to, what’s the best answer for myself and my family at this time? It’s unique to have the opportunity within the state, with similar fan bases. I know how passionate the state is about football.”

The Packers having interest in Leonhard wasn’t the first time another team or school had pursued Leonhard — he was rumored to be the University of Illinois’ prime candidate for its head-coaching job, which ended up going to ex-UW head coach Bret Bielema — and likely won’t be the last. Asked what his long-term coaching goal is and if he wants to be a head coach in college or the NFL someday, Leonhard said he couldn’t say.

“I still don’t know. I don’t have an end game,” Leonhard replied. “When I got into this, my whole goal was to impact the people I was around — from the coaching staff, to the players, to the university. That was really the only motivation for me to get into coaching.

“Obviously, things have happened fast, with the rise through the ranks and getting the recognition. It’s never been about that. I don’t care about that. I don’t have the five-year plan. I don’t have that. I’m taking it year by year right now, and I’m focused on impacting the people.”


A game-by-game look at the Badgers' revised schedule

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