400 wins: Sacred Heart-Griffin football coach Ken Leonard first in Illinois to reach milestone

Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register
Sacred Heart-Griffin head football coach Ken Leonard is presented with a banner after the Cyclones defeated Normal U-High 49-6 for Leonard’s 400th win at Ken Leonard Field in Springfield, Ill., Friday, October 15, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Ken Leonard’s place in Illinois high school football legacy was secured long before he became the winningest coach in the state in 2018. But he hit another milestone with his 400th win on Friday night.

Sacred Heart-Griffin beat Normal U-High 49-6 in a Central State Eight Conference matchup at Ken Leonard Field to give the coach his 400th win in a storied career, which came on the field named after the longtime coach.

“I love my job, I love what I do,” Leonard said after Friday’s win. “I’ve turned a lot of my responsibilities over to my assistants and stuff I used to do, they’re doing a better job. So, I just kind of oversee everything and make sure things are run right and put out any fires we may have. … And make sure we’re doing the right things.

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“I still love what I’m doing. I think some people get out and retire way too early because if you love what you’re doing, why do you have to stop? I don’t have long — I don’t know exactly long I’ve got — but I can see the end from here.” 

Sharing the success

Sacred Heart-Griffin head football coach Ken Leonard is honored with a plaque by Sister Katherine O'Connor after the Cyclones defeated Normal U-High 49-6 for Leonard’s 400th win at Ken Leonard Field in Springfield, Ill., Friday, October 15, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

SHG defensive coordinator Jim McMann was a player in Leonard first season at SHG in 1984 then later joined Leonard's staff in 1990. No one has been around for more of Leonard's wins.

"We really never talked about it, thought about it," McMann said, "but as time went by so fast and we’ve been pretty successful, now you look at the number 400 and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of wins per season every year.’ That’s a lot of guys who are a part of that success; a lot of kids."

Leonard's career began in 1980 at Gridley High School where he was 32-9 in four seasons. After a 7-2 season in 1983 when Gridley missed the playoffs, the program was shut down. The next season, Leonard began at the all-boys Griffin High School — as it was known prior to it combining with the all-girls school, Sacred Heart — and he hasn’t stopped winning since.

The Cyclones have won five state championships under Leonard — 2005-06, 2008, 2013-14 — with three runner-up trophies. He’s 368-71 at SHG and 400-80 overall in 42 seasons.

McMann pushed back on Leonard's claim as the program's "overseer." He said Leonard isn't in an honorary role.

"He can say that, but you watch him on the sidelines, like tonight, and he was in my kitchen about giving up some first downs and some defense," McMann said. "At practice, it's the same way. If it's not going like it should, he's on them.

"It's just like he was when I was a sophomore here in (1984). He hasn't changed much. He's slowed down a little, but the fire is still there."

When Leonard won No. 300 in 2012, McMann said he hoped to see 400. 

Sacred Heart-Griffin head football coach Ken Leonard watches as the Cyclones take on Normal U-High in the second half at Ken Leonard Field in Springfield, Ill., Friday, October 15, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

"I ran the numbers in my head the other day — what would it take to get to 400? There’s no doubt if he wanted to stay, he could easily get 400,” McMann told The State Journal-Register nine years ago. “I’m just happy I was a part of it. It’s been a great ride.”

On Friday, though, Leonard hinted there might not be a 500th win celebration.

"I don't have long and I don't know exactly long I've got, but I can see the end from here," Leonard said. "Here I am, for a little bit longer. We'll see."

Leonard has owned the career wins record in the state since surpassing former Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti in 2018 with his 375th win. Leonard’s son, Derek Leonard, doubts if anyone else will win 400.  

“To be the winningest coach in Illinois and to get to 400, I don’t know if that will ever be broken in today’s society,” said Derek, who has led Rochester to eight state championships since 2010 and has 169 wins himself in 17 seasons.  

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“I’m just really proud of him, proud he’s my father and proud that was he was my (high school) coach. In today’s world, what an honor to be a high school coach in basically one place. He’s been there 90% of the time, it’s where I grew up, and it’s an honor for the entire family: my mom, (brothers) Brad, Phil and myself. We all lived all the wins and losses. He deserves it more than anyone I’ve been around.

"He’s put in the work and the time, and he gives everyone else the credit but man, it’s all stemmed from him and all built by him." 

Rochester head football coach Derek Leonard talks with his father, Sacred Heart-Griffin head football coach Ken Leonard, after the Rockets defeated the Cyclones 45-41 at Rocket Booster Stadium in Rochester, Ill., Friday, September 10, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

How the record happened

SHG junior KeShon Singleton got the party started on Ken Leonard Field with an 82-yard punt return to give the Cyclones a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game. Singleton also caught an 11-yard touchdown pass.  

“That was huge for him, that was huge for the team,” Singleton said of Leonard’s 400th win. “I’m glad we were able to get it for him.  

“He’s so one with God. He’s such a holy man and knows what he wants. And he’s so uplifting to the team. He's always is encouraging, trying to get us to do better and trying to better himself to better us. We really appreciate him.”

Brody Walworth, the coach on the other sidelines who had a front-row seat to Leonard's 400th win, understands the difficulty in Leonard's feat.

"Congratulations to coach Leonard. What an accomplishment to get 400 wins," Walworth said. "I know these guys fairly well and he deserves it. There’s nothing easy about football.

"I don’t care how many times you go 8-1 or 9-0 or win a title or get to the third round, everything about the game is hard. Coach Leonard has been here for a long time and that sustained success starts with culture and that’s what we’re trying to build here is that culture."

Contact Ryan Mahan: 857-246-9756, ryan.mahan@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.