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Grizzlies more than a passing fancy under Leonard

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It wasn’t about numbers for the 17th head coach in Franklin College’s 116-year football history.

At least not initially.

Mike Leonard, after being hired away from his offensive coordinator’s post at his alma mater Jan. 9, 2003, waited all of 48 hours before deciding to alter the way Grizzlies teams would look under his command.

Leonard grew up in Indianapolis devoted to the Green Bay Packers; his idol was No. 15 himself, quarterback Bart Starr.

However, he preferred the helmet worn by the Oakland Raiders. It’s why Franklin College’s are on the verge of season No. 12 utilizing an old gold outline of a shield against a navy blue backdrop.

It’s why the center stripe is the exact width of what Oakland uses.

Dress-for-success tactics don’t always play out on crisp autumn afternoons. This did.

However, as those familiar with football’s inner workings will tell you, it takes a great deal more than basic helmet redesign for a program to capture six Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championships in the past seven seasons the way Leonard’s has.

Right man. Right place. Right time.

“Coach Leonard definitely is knowledgeable and passionate about the game of football, which is a must for any successful coach. He is very creative, especially when it comes to offense,” said Kyle Linville, the former Franklin College split end who owns Franklin career standards in receptions (308), yards (4,691) and touchdown catches (53). “What makes him unique and a favorite is how much he cares for his players as people.

“Coach ‘L’ very much fits into the Tony Dungy mold of coaching style, as he doesn’t get too fiery and simply uses the respect he draws, not emotion, to lead.”

Franklin College has won 69 percent of its games (84-37) during Leonard’s tenure. This includes a 64-14 HCAC record highlighted by victories in 56 of the Grizzlies’ 60 league matchups (.933) since the outset of the 2006 season.

“This is a relationship business, and that’s Mike’s strength. We got someone who understands the mechanics of this, but we also got someone who is a great people person,” longtime Franklin College athletics director and men’s basketball coach Kerry Prather said.

“When you look at coaches who are successful, they either bring that to the table or don’t.”

Leonard does. In bulk quantities.

Well-traveled assistant coach

Like most football coaches, Leonard during his youth was willing to deal with the hours, sweat and potential episodes of career uncertainty in order to methodically move upward one rung at a time.

After graduating from Hanover College in 1984, the former Panthers player and team captain served as a graduate assistant at DePauw University before moving on to the University of Alabama.

Leonard’s priority was the big time. The Alabama gig working under then Crimson Tide coach Ray Perkins during the 1986 season gave him a sampling.

“My first coaching job was at DePauw as a graduate assistant, and I wanted to climb the ladder. Long story short, I typed 107 letters in 1986 to all the Division I’s with the exception of IU because I did not want to follow (former Hanover player and DePauw grad assistant) Brett Bardwell to IU,” Leonard said.

“I only got one reply, and it was Alabama, so I spent a year as a grad assistant there. Thank goodness I got to that level at a young age. It was awesome, don’t get me wrong, but as I got later in life I realized that I was not scratching and clawing to get to that level. I felt my niche was the small colleges.”

Squeezed into those 19 pre-Franklin College seasons were two stints at Hanover, one at Alabama, Holy Cross College, Butler University, Wittenberg University and two stints as offensive coordinator for the Tokyo Seagulls.

Leonard paid his coaching dues and then some — on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

“The grass is always greener on the other side. I’m glad we moved a lot. The thing I learned, too, is there are great people everywhere. Great people out in Massachusetts when we lived in Wooster. In Tokyo. In Ohio,” Leonard said.

“Those experiences have molded me where I’m at today, but I treasure this place right now because so many things are good. Things may change, but I don’t foresee it changing here in quite awhile.”

No magic formula

Franklin College now, like at other points of its proud gridiron history, is known for throwing the football.

Last season’s squad piled up 506 points in its dozen games (42.2 per-game average); the Grizzlies against HCAC opposition averaged slightly under 54 points per game, well ahead of Mount St. Joseph, the league’s second-most-prolific scoring team at 35.8.

These numbers, while gaudy, are not unusual. In HCAC play alone, Franklin averaged 49.6 points in 2012, 46.9 in 2011 and 51.5 in 2010.

Leonard’s love of the passing game originated long before he ever became employed at Franklin College.

The coach recently reached for a binder on one of the bottom shelves in his office. Inside are the yellowed pages of a playbook he designed as a Hanover College senior.

“I got into coaching because I loved the scheme of the game. I loved the passing game, in particular. I did an independent study my senior year in college on the run-and-shoot, which just happened to be Franklin’s expertise,” Leonard said. “The older I’ve gotten, I still love the X’s and O’s, but not nearly as much as I used to.

“The game has changed where some of these younger coaches know a heck of a lot more than I do on scheme. But what I love is teaching lifelong lessons to guys who are 18- to 22-years-old that I know will help them later in life.”

Linville said the only time he ever saw Leonard angry at a player was because of a bad decision that individual made away from football.

“That further displays his interest in his players as young men more so than football players. I have known coach ‘L’ most my life, and he is one the most genuine men I know,” Linville said. “This has allowed him to create a family atmosphere that is enjoyable for players to be in. After that, the success and wins on the football field takes care of itself.”

Franklin College, ranked No. 25 in the preseason D3football.com Top 25, opens the 2014 season Sept. 6 at Illinois Wesleyan, then turns around to host defending Division III national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater the following Saturday.

Illinois Wesleyan posted a 9-2 record last season and has qualified for the NCAA Division III playoffs three of the past five years. Whitewater is in dynasty mode, having secured five Division III national titles since 2007.

No matter the outcome, experience tells Leonard these games promise to make the Grizzlies better by Week 3’s HCAC opener at Anderson University.

Win or lose, the man who is now second on the program’s career victories chart behind only the legendary Red Faught (160) won’t be tempted to deviate from what’s worked to this point.

“It’s not about me. It’s about team. Some people have egos that can’t fit through that door frame. I sure hope people don’t think I have one. We host football camps here in the summer, and as I watch some of these assistant high school coaches teach their players, there are guys out there that are 24 years old that know more football than I do right now,” Leonard said.

“I think my strength is just trying to rally everyone together for a common cause and get them going in the same direction.”

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