Farewell to the legendary SHG football coach who made winning look easy
It was a storybook ending to a legendary career.
In his 500th and final game, Ken Leonard won one more state championship. How appropriate for the winningest high school football coach in Illinois history.
“It feels different because it’s the last one,” Leonard said. “It feels kind of like the first one.”
A week ago, this championship not only seemed like it might not happen, but that Leonard’s 499th game was in peril of becoming a running-clock loss.
His final state championship avenged his first.
With Sacred Heart-Griffin's 44-20 win over New Lenox Providence Catholic in the Class 4A state championship at Memorial Stadium on Friday, Leonard bookended his long career with his sixth state title.
Leonard’s first state title game was a 22-17 loss to the Celtics. To win title No. 3, Leonard’s Cyclones beat Providence Catholic 24-17 in the 6A semifinals.
A year ago, following a 56-27 loss to Joliet Catholic in the 4A state game, Leonard announced that his 39th season with SHG — and 43rd overall — would be his last.
It seemed like a good bet that the Cyclones could make one more run for a state championship in Leonard’s final season. Much of the roster and practically the entire offense was back after that loss to Joliet Catholic. A dynamic offense in 2021 was only going to be better with a year of maturity and experience under its belt. Plus, with several players who were on the SHG Class 3A boys basketball state championship team, those players knew what it took to win the final game on the biggest stage.
Perhaps the craziest stat of all of the stats in Leonard’s career is his 81 losses. He hasn’t even averaged two losses a season over 43 years. That is insane. Ten of those losses came in a span from 2017-2019 when SHG went 9-3, 8-3 and 8-4. Most schools celebrate those records. At SHG, those 10 losses were more than Leonard had in the previous nine seasons.
Since Leonard was hired as the Griffin coach in 1984, before the girls’ school Sacred Heart and the boys’ school merged, SHG had just one losing season — a 2-7 record in 1998. The level of consistency has been historic.
However, before Leonard won his first state title, he knew something was missing. His first head coaching job came in 1980 at El Paso-Gridley where he went 32-9. The furthest he got was the 1981 semifinals.
He brought the Cyclones to state championship games in 1995 and 2003. Both losses. When SHG returned to state just two years after that 24-21 loss to Joliet Catholic in the 2003 Class 5A title game, it was natural for Leonard to wonder if he was meant to win one or not.
And now, Ken says he and his son, Rochester coach Derek Leonard, have to remind fans that this level of success isn’t normal.
“Derek ... tells those people from Rochester: ‘this isn’t automatic,’” Ken said.
After the game, the now-retired Leonard sought out Providence Catholic first-year coach Tyler Plantz.
“I said, ‘Enjoy this because it’s really hard to get here and really hard to win,’” Leonard said. “You’ve got to be good; you’ve got to be lucky.”
It’s a compliment to the coach who makes it look easy. Derek Leonard helped guide the Rockets to those eight titles in a 10-year span, from 2010 through 2019. Rochester might’ve added one or two more if not for Class 4A semifinal losses to SHG the last two seasons.
But it’s over. John Allison will take over the Cyclones’ program next year. Even if he keeps the program winning on the same level, he’ll need decades before he wins even 300 games.
Contact Ryan Mahan: 788-1546, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.