Jim Leonhard is not only afraid of heights, he’s terrified of being in the Camp Randall Stadium press box when it starts shaking during the “Jump Around” between the third and fourth quarters.
None of this is true. Probably not, anyway. It was just a joke used by Leonhard, the defensive coordinator for the University of Wisconsin football team, to playfully deflect a question about why he chooses to be on the sidelines rather than the coaches’ booth during games.
“Maybe that’s the answer,” Leonhard said as the No. 8 Badgers (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) prepared to take on Michigan State (4-2, 2-1) Saturday at Camp Randall. “I get scared up there.”
There’s actually a better explanation. It’s where Leonhard feels like he can make his biggest impact, both as a play-caller and in his role coaching the UW secondary.
During a long NFL career, Leonhard played under coordinators who spent games in the booth and others who chose to be on the field. He saw success on both sides.
“I knew early I wasn’t going to be comfortable up there because so much to me is kind of seeing guys, looking them in the eyes and being able to have those conversations and kind of feel the energy of the group,” Leonhard said. “I think that’s important for me. I kind of fed off that as a player. So as a coach, you’re always trying to kind of get the pulse of the team and the defense and I felt like that would have been really hard for me to do in the box.”
It comes down to personal preference, really. During his days as a coordinator, UW coach Paul Chryst preferred to be up in the booth, where he could scan the entire field and focus on calling plays in a more sterile environment.
Badgers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, on the other hand, is like Leonhard and prefers to be on the field. Rudolph spent time in the booth when he coached tight ends under Chryst, but moving back to his roots — the offensive line — was a game-changer in terms of where he wanted to spend his 3-plus hours on Saturday.
“I just feel like it’s the best opportunity to communicate with the O-line,” Rudolph said of being on field level. “Things happen during the game, things change, and being able to look those guys in the eye and help them through things” is easier.
Having both coordinators on the field isn’t unheard of, but UW’s approach to where its assistant coaches watch the game is rare in at least one respect.
All four of the full-time assistants on defense — Leonhard, line coach Inoke Breckterfield, inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad and outside linebackers coach Bobby April III — are on the field. Leonhard relies heavily on a pair of graduate assistants, Brent Zdebski and New Glarus native Ryan Bright, to provide insight on what they see from the booth.
On the offensive side, Rudolph is on the field along with running backs coach John Settle and wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore. Quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr and tight ends coach Mickey Turner are in the booth with graduate assistant Micah Kapoi, a former UW player who can provide offensive line-specific information to Rudolph.
Leonhard said he left it up to his assistants on defense to decide where they preferred to watch the game.
“We’ve talked and played devil’s advocate a lot about that, because it does come to a lot of trust in the guys you have in the box,” Leonhard said. “Can you trust that the information is right? Can you see (enough) to where it’s just supplemental information coming from up in the box?
“There are a lot of conversations. Every game, you’re sitting down and saying, ‘All right, would it have played out differently? Could we have seen this? Could we have gotten to something faster?’ We’re doing that in-season, out of season, having those conversations because I don’t think it is common to have all the full-time coaches down like that.”
Players and coaches agreed face-to-face communication is a huge advantage during games.
Sophomore defensive end Matt Henningsen pointed out that not only can he have a conversation with Breckterfield between series, he also can ask Bostad and April for input on opponent running plays. And when Henningsen arrives in the locker room at halftime, he can pick the brain of former teammate Olive Sagapolu, who’s helping out with the coaching staff and sits in the booth during games.
Sophomore cornerback Faion Hicks said it’s convenient to have Leonhard just a few steps away. Hicks said during one timeout earlier this season, Leonhard warned the opposing offense might use a formation with an empty backfield; sure enough, it did.
Rudolph has a reserve offensive lineman chart each play and, between drives, goes over every play with the Badgers and makes necessary adjustments. Rudolph even calls over the fullbacks and tight ends on occasion so he can have conversations with them.
Leonhard does the same on the defensive side. Being on the field allows him to float from one position group to the next to review what happened on the previous series and plan ahead for the ensuing one.
“We do a great job of having open lines of communication between us and them,” senior inside linebacker Chris Orr said. “It kind of flows well together.”