Being in charge was nothing new for Mike Leonard. He’d been a head coach before.
In 1987, he directed the men’s track and field team at Hanover College. A dozen years later, he served as that school’s men’s tennis coach.
But in 2003, when he got the opportunity he’d long been waiting for, his experience with track and tennis did little to prepare him for the immensely greater challenge of leading a college football team.
Hired by Franklin College to right a listing program, Leonard — a first-time head football coach — found himself in an elevated environment that was equal parts exhilarating and daunting.
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No longer supervising a handful of athletes, he was shepherding scores. No longer teaching a sport on the periphery of spectator interest, he was coaching a game with legions of fans.
No longer an assistant in someone else’s program, as he had been at five other schools, he was now chief designer of his own team.
Brimming with confidence, stoked with enthusiasm, all that was left to do was to win games — which he didn’t do, not initially.
“When I became a head football coach, it wasn’t without its struggles that first year,” said Leonard, who’s winding down his 12th season with the Grizzlies. “We went 2-8. They had been 2-8 the year before.
“I went through some issues of highly doubting myself.”
As time would reveal, the doubts were pointless. The Grizzlies had the right man. Leonard, whose immediate expectation was winning, just didn’t know it.
Today, loyal followers of the Grizzlies know it, too. They’ve known it for quite some time, as does the entire NCAA Division III football universe.
In light of unprecedented achievements, in the form of seven national tournament appearances in the past eight years, that dismal 2-8 campaign of 2003 is a distant memory — if it’s a memory at all — for Franklin fans.
Before Leonard’s arrival from Hanover, where he served two stints as offensive coordinator, Franklin was a middling Division III team, laboring in mediocrity in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. The Grizzlies never had won a league title, let alone advanced to the national tournament, and were annually irrelevant in the race for HCAC championship.
For much of the past decade, they’ve stood atop it.
Winners of an unprecedented five straight conference titles, the Grizzlies (8-2, 8-0 HCAC) are making their fifth straight appearance in the Division III playoffs. They play at noon today at No. 14 Wabash (9-1) and are bidding for a fourth straight first-round win.
‘The Little Man’
Franklin, which advanced to the quarterfinals in 2008, has been such a dominant force in the conference — and a frequent resident in the Top 25 poll — that it is difficult to fathom a time when Leonard seriously questioned his ability to steer the program on a winning path.
He’s done that and then some.
“I think everybody goes through that in their life, with whatever profession they’re in,” Leonard recalled of some of the dark days of 2003, days in which a taunting voice from a self-imagined figure he refers to as The Little Man made him question his abilities.
In the end, however, Leonard, a man of devout faith, listened to a different voice, one that expressed an entirely different message.
“You ask yourself, ‘Am I where I need to be? I’m no good at this? This is not what I’m supposed to be doing,'” Leonard said. “There were many times I had to beat The Little Man. One night in particular, after our first home game that I ever coached at Franklin, the Little Man was kicking my butt that night, and I had to trust the Big Man that I’m in the right place, that I’m where I need to be. He put me here for a reason.
“Stick it out. Finish what you start. Persevere, and all that good stuff.”
Perseverance paid off not only for himself but for the entire football program.
Since 2007, Franklin has been the dominant force in the HCAC. All-American players have come and gone, but winning championships — and playing in the national tournament — have been constants.
For that, Leonard points to five sources: A supportive administration, a vibrant booster club, skilled assistants, talented players and a fun environment for everyone.
He claims credit only for the last.
“This is kind of my big job. You’ve got to create an attitude in the program that permeates positiveness and fun,” Leonard said. “And that last thing, I attribute to my upbringing and all the coaches and teachers that affected me along the way.
“So I think we’ve got all five (sources) working in the right direction right now.”
Players, from the top of the depth chart to the bottom, clearly enjoy being part of the program and playing for Leonard, in particular.
Practices are hard, expectations are high, self-responsibility is a command, but the atmosphere is player-friendly, in the purest sense. A post-practice activity is as likely to include a rock-scissors-paper tournament, including coaches, trainers and players, as it is a film session.
“He always finds positives to look at in any situation,” said senior quarterback Grant Welp, the HCAC’s Offensive Player of the Year. “Too often coaches focus on the negatives that happen, but coach Leonard doesn’t just focus on them, he twists it into a new motivation to become better.
“And the sense of family that he brings to a group of 100 18- to 22-year-old guys is something that just isn’t found just anywhere.”
‘Like a real family’
Junior linebacker Lucas Windell, a former standout at Corydon Central High School, agrees.
“I enjoy so many things about playing for coach Leonard, but most of all the way he keeps each and every day fun, but without taking the seriousness out of it,” Windell said. “He cares about his players and makes the Griz feel like a real family.
“I’d say the main thing that sets him apart from other coaches is that he understands that things happen in life, on and off the field, and he rolls with it. He is there for all of us if we need him as a coach or as a friend.”
That helps explain why attrition is seldom, if ever, a problem for Franklin.
In any given year, the Grizzlies have 120-plus players on the roster. Despite limited playing opportunities for most, few quit. This year, 126 reported for the first day of summer camp. Only three left the team.
The rest will be at Wabash today, with the unified goal of enhancing a winning tradition that everyone, starters and backups alike, are proud to be a part of.
“Even the sixth- and seventh-stringers have stayed on and haven’t thrown in the towel,” Leonard said. “That’s one of the most satisfying stats that I could throw out, not how many points we’re averaging or anything like that. Everybody’s engaged. Everybody’s into it.
“That makes it a lot of fun.”
THE LEONARD FILE
Name: Mike Leonard
Family: Wife, Susan; son, Bart, 24; daughter, Emily, 19
High school: Speedway (1980)
College: Hanover College (1984)
Hired at Franklin: 2003
Career record: 92-39 (72-14 HCAC)
HCAC championships: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2008, 2007
Postseason highlights: Franklin has advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs three straight seasons; advanced to quarterfinals in 2008.
Favorite TV show: “Everybody Loves Raymond”
Favorite movies: “Book of Eli,” “Gladiator” and “Saving Private Ryan”
Favorite athlete: Bart Starr
Favorite team: Green Bay Packers