For someone known for unassuming, introspective brilliance, Paul Chryst just did something pretty darned radical.
Last week, just a day after the glorious chaos of National Signing Day subsided, Chryst hired a 34-year-old ex-player with only one year of collegiate coaching experience to replace Justin Wilcox as defensive coordinator.
Judging from the B5Q commentariat, Jim Leonhard’s hiring has spurred cautious optimism from Wisconsin fans. Given that most coaching hires are met with either unbridled enthusiasm or sky-is-falling angst, the understated but positive response in itself was telling.
The optimism comes in the form of Leonhard’s respected 10-year NFL career, as well his status as a University of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Famer, three-time All-American and three-time first-team All-Big Ten honoree. Not to mention the fact that during his one year as secondary coach, Wisconsin was second in the country with 22 interceptions.
Yeah, but... he’s young.
At 34, Leonhard is young for a big-time college coordinator, but youth is not always a barrier when dealing with 18 to 22-year-old young men. Often, it is an asset.
A number of very successful head coaches and coordinators are younger than 40 (at the start of 2016, notable names included former UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck).
Yeah, but... he’s inexperienced.
But all of those coaches, young as they were, started coaching in their twenties, working their way up the chain and #payingtheirdues.
Despite his drastic lack of formal coaching experience, the narrative that quickly emerged after the hiring announcement centered around Leonhard as something of a player-coach during his NFL stint for teams like the Jets, Ravens and Browns. Stories emerged of him scheming and teaching and knowing the system better than his defensive coordinators.
Current players, former teammates, media who follow the team—basically, smart-people-in-the-know—have all rallied around the hire.
If that’s the case, then what do we make of the “Yeah, buts...”?
Leading large, complex organizations (among which a major college football defensive unit would most certainly be counted) is difficult and what is needed for the job frequently can be an amorphous thing.
Gifted coaches have succeeded at one place, only to fail miserably at others (#richrod, #hopefullyFLECK!™). Usually that’s a function of circumstance.
Recently departed Justin Wilcox had been successful at every stop he’d ever coached before being fired by USC. He hadn’t forgotten how to coach; a combination of an unstable environment or the wrong players or wrong organization or the wrong time conspired against him.
Assuming that this is, fingers crossed, the right place at the right time for Leonhard, there are certain traits that make a good leader in a complex, high-pressure environment, many of which he brings to the table (and some that are still open questions).
Technical acumen. Technical acumen takes intelligence and applies it to the specific job at hand. For example, B5Q’s author-in-residence Jake Kocorowski is plenty smart, but I would seriously question his ability to conduct open-heart surgery on me should the need arise (#hottake).
A coordinator has to develop schemes to counter the most creative and exotic creations some of the best minds (see, e.g., Meyer, Harbaugh) can throw at them.
The scheme must maximize the players’ strengths while minimizing or mitigating the players’ weaknesses. The players also need to know their jobs within the scheme - they must be in the right place at the right time to execute according to the plan.
Technical acumen also takes the form of the ability to develop players under his supervision. At UW, this is particularly critical. The Badgers’ model since the storied Days of Barry has been to identified undervalued players, particularly in and around Wisconsin, and develop them into Big Ten-caliber (or even NFL-caliber) talent.
Leonhard, a former walk-on from Tony, Wis., certainly understands that part of the job intuitively—not only in terms of the meaning for the program, but what it takes for a player to succeed.
We know that Leonhard is scary smart. We know that he can coach individual players and we know from his NFL days that he is a scheme and coverage savant.
The question—in my mind, the biggest one about this hire—is his ability to put it all together. Can he, week to week, create schematic advantages, get his players in a position to execute them and, if the schemes fail during a game, adjust on the fly?
Emotional intelligence. Does the leader have the emotional intelligence to understand what the team needs in order to do the job it is being asked to do?
For example, what motivates me to do my job (pie, heaps of praise) may differ from what motivates B5Q’s Drew Hamm (also pie, bad example), which may itself differ from, say, Kocorowski (more books, pie, OK jeez).
This may be one of the areas where Leonhard’s age and relative lack of experience may be impactful. From all accounts, players seem to love playing for Leonhard. I suspect that his story and experiences at UW and in the NFL resonate with the program’s young men, many of whom would love to follow the same path.
But not everyone is wired the same (B5Q writers aside). Finding the right notes to hit with 50-plus defensive players, all of whom have their own unique backgrounds, life goals, hopes and challenges is tough for a seasoned professional.
Obviously, he’ll be supported by Chryst, Joe Rudolph and the other experienced coaches, but without lessons learned at coaching stops along the way, does Leonhard have the emotional intelligence to intuit a solution where experience is lacking?
Communication. Can the leader not only formulate the vision, but also communicate it to the team in the way that it needs to hear it? Can the leader articulate the vision to stakeholders outside the organization in a way that resonates with them and gets them on his side?
It’s clear that Leonhard can communicate on the field and in the film room. It remains to be seen how Leonhard will be with those outside stakeholders—recruits, media, alumni—that take up so much of a major college coach’s time. Sure, Chryst gets the brunt of these tasks, but the coordinators get their fair share.
Another communication challenge will be within the defensive coaching staff. It is difficult as a young leader to head a group of experienced professionals, some of whom no doubt believe they could or should have his job. This is not to assume negative intent on anyone’s behalf, but to think there are not injured egos in the locker room is naive.
It will be a true challenge for Leonhard as a communicator to articulate his vision and get these seasoned and talented professionals to buy in. He’ll need to know when to take their counsel and when to make a decision with which they may not agree.
In Leonhard, Wisconsin becomes a little more like Chryst (though, in listening to the stories about Wilcox, one gets the sense that he and Chryst were simpatico as well).
It is clear that Leonhard is a gifted coach who has been preparing for this moment—intentionally or subconsciously—his entire collegiate and professional playing career.
But there is a difference between a coach and a coordinator. Problems float upwards; if they could have been resolved at lower levels (position coaches, graduate assistants) they would have been.
Does Leonhard have the tools in his tool box to address all of the issues that go with managing not only a large, complex organization, but one that is composed of 18 to 22-year-old men, each of whom is navigating college life under an intense spotlight, as well as older professionals whom he has to motivate and gain buy-in from?
I give Chryst all the credit in the world for this bold hire. It’s a risky one, but has high reward potential. I am a fan of talent getting its moment. Jim Leonhard now has his.