Top Illinois coach Ken Leonard earned stripes with team of 18 players

By Derek Smith, FNF Coaches Contributor

When Sacred Heart-Griffin coach Ken Leonard was at Gridley High School in rural, central Illinois, he had only 18 players during the 1983 season. Now, Leonard coaches at a powerhouse and holds the state record for career wins.

He was early in his head coaching career and Leonard was still learning the ropes of building a program. The school enrolled less than 100 students.

Leonard had just one assistant coach so he had to be innovative when it came to running practice every afternoon.

While he spent only four seasons at Gridley (1980-1983) before leaving for Sacred Heart-Griffin in Springfield, Ill., he took with him original ideas that led him to a 379-74 career record as a head coach.

“I might not have come down here if Gridley would have had enough players. We just ran out of kids,” Leonard said.

Gridley, with a population of 1,432 according to the 2010 census, was a long way from Springfield, the state’s capital with more than 100,000 people. Leonard was comfortable in the small community. He had grown up in nearby Chenoa and won 10 games each in 1981 and 1982. Leonard didn’t want to leave, but the school dropped football.

One of the solutions Leonard developed in order to conduct practice and offseason drills at a small school with so few assistants was to teach his seniors how to be coaches.

Today, many of the former players are, and have been, assistant coaches for him at Sacred Heart-Griffin.

“Now I have more coaches than I had players at Gridley,” Leonard said.

“The people who are successful are the people who know what they don’t know and are honest with themselves. You become better or you get people around you that know what you don’t know.”

A born-again Christian at a private, Catholic school, Leonard’s motto for his program and team is, “Our goal is to be champions. Our purpose is to Christ-like.”

Character development classes once a week, Leonard says, help build boys into men and makes them better people.

After putting in over 40 years as a coach and being of retirement age, calling it quits has been on his mind before.

A few years ago he experienced a challenging period of time both on the football field and in his personal life that left Leonard considering walking away.

Everything then that could have happened, did,” he said.

His wife of 40 years, Liz, died after a long illness on New Year’s Eve, 2017. Ken wondered if he had the passion to keep coaching the Cyclones.

As luck would have it, he met a special lady at a church grief support group, who also had lost a spouse, and the two married shortly afterwards. He continued coaching at Sacred Heart-Griffin and has no plans to retire yet.

“I’ve been blessed,” Leonard said. “I could have not imagined a better life being in teaching and being around young people.”

The Ken Leonard Profile

Age: 66

School:  Sacred Heart-Griffin, Springfield, Ill.

Years at school: 36 (1984-2019)

2018 record: 8-3 (playoffs, quarterfinals)

State championships: 5 (2005, 2006, 2008, 2013, 2014)

Coaching record: 379-74

Other schools: Gridley High (Ill.) (1980-1983)

Note: son, Derek, is state champion-winning head coach at Rochester High (Ill.)

Accomplishments: Winningest coach in Illinois high school football history; named the National High School Coaches Association National High School Coach of the Year