Preps Talk

Edgy Tim interviews veteran Rochester head coach Derek Leonard

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NBC Sports Chicago

Edgy Tim interviews veteran Rochester head coach Derek Leonard

The latest guest on my weekly podcast is Rochester‘s head coach Derek Leonard. Leonard has an impressive overall record of 157-32 in 15 seasons at Rochester and eight state championships over the last 10 seasons, capped off by the Rockets Class 5A state title in 2019. 

Edgy Tim: Was the 2019 IHSA Class 5A State Championship win for your program more satisfying, say, compared to some of the others you've won? Many people over the years have openly asked and wondered why Rochester wouldn't eventually move up in class after winning so many 4A state titles?

Derek Leonard: Yes. I know I was excited and our kids were excited because you can't help but hear everybody talk about it, and it was a good way to end the decade for us, especially on the run we've made (eight state titles in 10 years) to go up a class and play St. Rita.  It was a dream type of match up against St. Rita, a Chicago Catholic League power that's the cream of the crop in the Catholic League, and a match up that will probably never happen again. I just think it's unfair to anyone who's ever won a state championship to say they need to move up. We do things the right way, so why should we have to move up? We play Sacred Heart and Chatham, and we play in a conference with bigger schools already (Central State 8), so we play schools who are already moved up all year long, and we showed we can compete against those bigger schools. 

Edgy Tim: After your amazing 15-year run so far at Rochester, what do you attribute your success as a program to? 

Leonard: It's a long answer. There are so many things that had to go right. Probably number one is I got so lucky. I got to watch the best coach I believe anywhere, whether high school, college or NFL, and I know he's my father, but that's how I feel about him. I feel that I've been an assistant coach now for a long, long time, and I watch the game, and I'm competitive. But I watch my Dad, (Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin Hall of Fame head coach Ken Leonard) and I watched the best do it for a long time. So I feel I was an assistant way before I was an actual assistant coach for him and just getting to be around so many great coaches over the years. Then at Rochester, it's a great community, and I've had some great players. People don't realize that Rochester has only been playing football for 25 years, and a lot of our players dads never played football here growing up. It's not like we have had a tradition like a Sacred Heart Griffin or a Joliet Catholic. It's actually been a bit refreshing for the community because everyone was so excited when we started winning and started building up something here. I have such a great coaching staff. Many of those guys have been with me since day one. We've done things differently, and have been ahead of the curve a bit on the way we do things and run things offensively. A lot of that is what I learned from my father, and he was also, in many ways, ahead of the curve, as well. You take all of that into consideration to get us where we are at today. I would have never dreams of this success we've had over the last decade in a million years, and one day, I'll look back at it a bit closer. It's been crazy. 

Edgy Tim: Last season, offensively you scored 728 points in 14 games, averaging 52 points per game. Where does the 2019 Rochester team offensively stack up against some of the other state championship offenses you've had at Rochester?

Leonard: Upfront (on the offensive line), we were very good. Maybe as good as I've ever had upfront. The 2010 team was close, and the 2010 team was probably the best I've ever had. But this team (2019) was very, very close. This team upfront on the offensive and defensive line, we actually had some size, which we usually don't have over the years. This year, we were big, and we had size. I had a great quarterback with Clay Bruno (WIU) who was awesome, and who I thought was a bit underrated if you ask me. Our running back (Jacob) DuRocher had a great year, along with, obviously, (sophomore wide receiver) Hank Beatty. So this offense was capable of doing whatever we needed or whatever it took to get the win. Some years, everyone knows what we were doing. When we had a kid like (Quarterback) Wes (Lunt), everyone knew we were going to throw it 50 times a game. This year's offense was, we could literally take whatever the defense gave us, and as a play caller, that was nice to have. 

Edgy: During the regular season last year, you were on a roll. You were 8-0 going into Week 9 at Glenwood. They took it to you (56-26 loss to the Titans), but did that loss in Week 9 help prepare you at all going into the playoffs the next week? 

Leonard: I think that game helped. The bottom line was Glenwood was just good. And part of it was that last year, the Central State 8 conference might of been the best it's been since 2010. All the way through the regular season, we played against good teams, including Glenwood. Our group was good, but they were also a bit squirrley, so maybe they needed a butt shipping a little bit. They (Glenwood) just out-physical-ed us and outplayed us at at their place. We almost had that deer in the headlights look. I think it was good to be on the road at Glenwood and end up playing a team like Griffin in the quarterfinals, then a team like St. Rita in the finals. That Glenwood game got us prepared for the road in the state playoffs. 

Edgy: The popular line of thought is that having to beat the same team twice in the same season is very difficult. Did that hold true last year when you beat your dad's team (Sacred Heart Griffin) pretty handily in Week 5 56-21, but then had a battle on your hands in the quarterfinals and got the 49-35 win?

Leonard: Sometimes that holds true ,and I feel that in football, in particular, teams should never play twice in the same year for lots of reasons. I couldn't even explain what that second game (against Sacred Heart Griffin) felt like. You have rivalries, but then you have a game like we have, and it's a rivalry in our community. Then you are also playing your father's team, and those people over on that side know me better than most people do, and they might as well be my assistant coaches. It's one thing to lose in the regular season because you go home and get ready to play another week, but in the playoffs, you lose and you're done, and another good team is finished for the year, and that's tough. They made a great run, and they will be tough this coming season because they were young. But someone had to lose it. It hurt because it's your father. That game was so different for me on so many levels because they are so well coached and they were so well prepared for us. It was emotional on me and a hard one on me, and I know it was tough on him, too. 

Edgy: So now that the whole district scheduling system that was put in place has now been voted out, what's next?

Leonard: I was very anti-districts and made it known from a Rochester standpoint. And I felt it would have been bad for the state overall. I feel I'm an objective person and try to look at it from everyone's point of view, and I just felt that we would have lost a lot under that district scheduling plan. We do have schools and people who have real issues under our current system who wanted districts for the right reasons because travel can be hard and getting games scheduled can be a challenge. I feel IHSA should do something in some cases where they make a conference take a team because it's the best for everyone involved. Yet, I do like our current system, and for now, I'm not sure what the next move might be. I just know that districts wasn't the right move at the time. 

Jerry Sloan, Bulls player and Jazz coaching legend, stayed true to Illinois roots

Jerry Sloan, Bulls player and Jazz coaching legend, stayed true to Illinois roots

There’s country strong. And then there’s Jerry Sloan.

The NBA Hall of Fame player and coach, a tenacious defender and steady offensive threat, became a household name with the Chicago Bulls in the 1970s. Four-time NBA All-Defensive First Team. Two-time NBA-All-Star.

Sloan died Friday after a courageous battle against Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. He was 78.

But it was Sloan’s perseverance as a child and his dedication to the game of basketball —and his home town— 300 miles south of the Windy City that made him a real star.

[MORE: Remember ‘Original Bull’ Jerry Sloan as he lived: tough, humble and honest]

The former Bull, who went on to lead the Utah Jazz to the playoffs in 15 of his 23 seasons there as a head coach, grew up on a farm near McLeansboro, Illinois. The youngest of 10 children, Sloan would routinely wake up in the wee hours to do family chores. He’d then walk two miles to the town’s high school for basketball practice.

The foundation of a hard work ethic and a ferocious competitive nature paved the way for Sloan’s rise to stardom.

Sloan played on several great McLeansboro teams in the late-50s. In his junior season, he helped guide his squad to a 19-6 record for coach Gene Haile. He followed that up with a senior season most kids would dream of: 26 wins, 3 losses. He was named to the All-State team.

He would later guide the Evansville Purple Aces to two Division II national championships. He became known as “the Original Bull” shortly after the startup Bulls franchise drafted him in the 1966 expansion draft. The rest was history—a brilliant 10-year career in Chicago as a player and nearly three more as a head coach on West Madison before becoming a legend in Salt Lake City.

But it was his small-town roots that made Jerry Sloan all the more genuine.

He would return to McLeansboro several times in 1984 —the year he became an assistant with the Utah Jazz— to watch his high school team play. His son, Brian, led the Foxes to the Class A state championship that year, going 35-0 in the process. Brian went on to play for Bobby Knight at Indiana.

Sloan would return frequently to this Southern Illinois town many times during his run with the Jazz— a run where he only finished below .500 once and racked up an astonishing career 1,221 wins. Hamilton County High School, formerly known as McLeansboro, dedicated its gym in Sloan’s honor in Dec. 2012. A road in McLeansboro is now called Jerry Sloan Avenue.

In a statement, a representative from McLeansboro High School said the following:

“Today is a sad day for Hamilton County and the Foxes. Coach Jerry Sloan has passed away. Coach Sloan graduated from McLeansboro High School in 1960 and was always a hometown boy. Whenever he returned he was just one of us. He will be greatly missed. RIP Coach Sloan.”

McLeansboro will always be Sloan Country.

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Michigan recruit J.J. McCarthy to transfer from Nazareth to Florida's IMG Academy

Michigan recruit J.J. McCarthy to transfer from Nazareth to Florida's IMG Academy

J.J. McCarthy, the state’s top-ranked high school quarterback and overall player according to Rivals, is transferring from Nazareth Academy to IMG Academy in Florida.

McCarthy made the announcement on his Twitter page Monday afternoon.

The news sent shock waves throughout the national prep football landscape. McCarthy, committed to play at Michigan, led the Roadrunners to an IHSA 7A second place finish back in November. As a sophomore in 2018, he threw for over 3,200 yards and 36 touchdowns. It culminated in a state title win and a 13-1 season.

The move makes sense for McCarthy, as he will team up with offensive lineman Greg Crippen, a fellow Michigan commit. According to Rivals, McCarthy (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) is ranked as the No. 5 pro-style quarterback and No. 33 overall recruit in the country.

The loss is a huge one for head coach Tim Racki and company at the La Grange Park school. That said, the Roadrunners are one of the dominant programs in IHSA football, compiling a 38-4 record the past three seasons with three state titles in the previous six campaigns.

The big questions: Will other high-caliber Illinois high school athletes follow McCarthy? When will the IHSA commit to a fall sports schedule? What will Illinois high school football look like in the fall? What guidelines will be in place? There are many uncertainties.

What is known: The IHSA chose to cancel the state basketball tournament and all 2020 spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Illinois is currently in a phased reopening of businesses and other institutions. Florida is ahead of Illinois in respect to some of those aforementioned facilities.

The risk, or perhaps the unknown, was worth it for McCarthy and his family. Will Florida —or other states, including Illinois— even be cleared to play football come August? Will his move be a productive one in retrospect?

Time will tell.