The Bears announced Thursday that Ken Leonard, head coach of Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield, has been named the team's nominee for the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award. The Bears will make a $2,000 donation to Sacred Heart-Griffin's football program in his honor. During the IHSA football season, the Bears recognized a total of nine coaches as High School "Coach of the Week" and nine players as "High School All-Star," brought to you by Athletico. All winners will be honored at halftime of the Bears' Dec. 18 game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Soldier Field.
During a virtual video call, Bears coach Matt Eberflus informed Leonard that he was the Bears' nominee for the award.
"I want to say congratulations on a wonderful career, for what you've done, not only for the kids you've touched but also the life of all the kids after that," said Eberflus. Without hesitation, coach Leonard cracked a smile, saying: "It has been a fun ride; I tell people that I haven't worked a day of my life, it's something you love. I've been blessed."
Eberflus and Leonard share a special connection, as Eberflus used to recruit players from Leonard's program back when Eberflus was a recruiting coordinator for the University of Toledo football program.
Most people look forward to the holidays at this time of year, but Leonard is also looking forward to marking the end of an era in his long, successful coaching career. In his final season at SHG, Leonard guided the Cyclones to an undefeated season (14-0 overall) and won the Class 4A State Championship after defeating Providence Catholic. SHG hired Leonard as head football coach and athletic director in 1984 after serving four years as head coach at Gridley High School, a small school with fewer than 100 students near Normal. Leonard has helped lead the SHG football program to six state championships (2005, 2006, 2008, 2013, 2014 & 2022) and four additional title game appearances. He ends his career as the winningest coach in IHSA history with a remarkable 419-81 overall record over 43 years—39 with SHG and four with Gridley. Leonard was also recognized as the Bears' "Coach of the Year" nominee in 2018 and "Coach of the Week" in 2012 and 2016.
Despite his success on the field, Leonard believes the most rewarding experience in his coaching career has been having the opportunity to help establish a path for his student-athletes. Not only has he spent thousands of hours in weight rooms and locker rooms and on football fields teaching young players to excel in football, but he has also dedicated time to teaching his athletes to become great people. Many of his past athletes went on to play in college, with several making it into the NFL, including Matt Mitrione (undrafted in 2002), Malik Turner (drafted in 2018) and Albert Okwuegbunam (drafted in 2020). After 43 years of coaching, Leonard can finally say he is satisfied with his career as he engraves an extraordinary legacy for SHG and is now looking forward to starting a new chapter of his life in his retirement with his family.