The Leonard Legacy: Father-son coaching duo is prolific in Illinois

It’s tough to talk about high school football in Illinois without the legendary Leonard name coming up.

Sacred Heart-Griffin High coach Ken Leonard became the all-time leader in coaching victories in the state last year. It was only fitting that the 42-year coach recorded the historic win that clinched his spot against Rochester High – a team coached by his son, Derek.

Derek also has earned a place on the Mount Rushmore of Illinois high school football coaches during his career at Rochester, where he’s coached teams to seven state championships in the last nine years.

The Leonards also happen to be the last two nominees of the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year for the state of Illinois. Derek was the 2017 nominee, and Ken earned the 2018 honor and the trip to the Pro Bowl last month.

The father and son face off as coaches of their respective teams each year in what is dubbed locally as the “Leonard Bowl.” During the 2018 game, the Chicago Bears were in town hosting an NFL Crucial Catch event to raise cancer awareness in memory of Liz Leonard, the wife of Ken and mother of Derek, who passed from breast cancer in December.

The Leonard father-son tandem will be in town for the USA Football National Conference, and each coach has a session for high school coaches.

Ken Leonard will lead “Character Building” on Sunday from 12:45 to 1:30 p.m.

“We call it ‘The Other Side of the Game’, and I think it’s the most important side,” Ken Leonard said. “We say it’s faith, family and football. We’ll get into our core beliefs.”

Ken Leonard and the Sacred Heart-Griffin High staff spend 30 minutes each week leading a character development session for players. The goal each season is to teach the seniors to lead the sessions by the end of the season.

“We have a mentoring program, and we ask all of our coaches to stay on top of the players and develop them from boys to men,” Ken Leonard said. “We want them to be good fathers and people.”

The Sacred Heart-Griffin staff also asks players to write love letters to their mothers and fathers during their high school careers. Each player will read the letters to their parents in front of their classmates.

“I love X’s and O’s and the spread offense, but this is what’s important,” Ken Leonard said.

Derek Leonard will lead a session, “Gap Scheme RPO’s Through the Quarterback Position”, on Friday from 3 to 3:45 p.m. Leonard’s teams have won seven of the last nine state championships running that scheme.

“We’ve been running it for 12 or 13 years,” Leonard said. “We’ve always been ahead of it, ahead of defenses schematically. Now, we’re so far into it, we have a better feel than we’ve had the last few years.”

Derek Leonard is the first to admit his team has experienced some growing pains by constantly trying to stay ahead of the curve in implementing the Gap Scheme RPO offense. He’s hoping his presentation will help other coaches avoid those struggles.

“We can share what kind of experiences we’ve gone through as it relates to the quarterback position,” Ken Leonard said. “There’s been some good and some bad. We’ll get that across to help other guys that maybe are in the earlier stages of installing this stuff.”

The Leonard Sessions

Derek Leonard, Rochester High

Friday, 3 to 3:45 p.m. – “Gap Scheme RPO’s Through the QB Position”

Ken Leonard, Sacred Heart-Griffin

Sunday, 12:45 to 1:30 p.m. – “Character Building”