Jim Leonard coached the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1945 season. He is one of six head coaches who led the Steelers for one season or less.
Leonard played college football at Notre Dame after an outstanding high school career at St Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia. He got opportunities to play following injuries to fullbacks ahead of him on the depth chart. He played up to his potential when given the opportunity and newspapers say he outshined starting fullback 1932 all-American George Melinkovich when given the opportunity.
College football concerned itself with sickness even back then as we deal with the coronavirus in 2020. The starting fullback was hospitalized with the flu prior to a late season contest against Army in 1932. Big Jim alternated at full back in their 21-0 victory.
Leonard shifted to guard in his senior year. He began the year as a back-up but became a starter when Notre Dame shook up their lineup during a disastrous 3-5-1 season. He was the starting left guard in their 13-12 upset of previously unbeaten Army in the season finale. Leonard was in on a blocked kick in the end zone which was instrumental in the win. He was the first Notre Dame “Rambler”, as they were then monikered, to letter three times in twenty years.
In the days before the NFL draft, multiple teams would bid on players coming out of college. The Philadelphia Eagles managed to sign Leonard for the 1934 season. Perhaps, Bert Bell remembered Leonard from his days starring at St. Joes Prep in Philadelphia.
Big Jim returned to fullback and started 26 of 32 games in his four seasons played as an Eagle. His rookie highlight must have been his only score of the season. A two-yard plunge in the second quarter that was the only score in the Eagles 6-0 upset of eventual 1934 champion New York Giants in the final game for the Eagles. Leonard scored both in 1935 and 1936 against the Giants, but this time both games were defeats. The Eagles let Leonard go early in 1937 after he appeared in just two games. He finished out the fall playing for semi pro teams.
Coaching the Red Flash
Saint Francis was returning to the grid iron after shutting the football program down from 1932 through 1937. Saint Francis hired Big Jim who had just retired from professional football after four seasons. As athletic director his duties included coaching the football team which was routine practice at the time.
The Red Flash won just one game in his first two seasons as Leonard rebuilt the program. The work paid off as Saint Francis finished 12-2-1 in the next two seasons. One of his players was Kiski’s Tony Bova who played for the Steelers and its iterations from 1942-47 despite being blind in one eye.
Assists in Steelers First Winning Season
Saint Francis dropped football due to the war before the 1942 season which led to the Steelers hiring Leonard to assist Walt Kiesling coaching the team. Big Jim recommended Bova as the team scrambled to find talent as the war effort took players away. A factor in Leonard’s favor may have been that his former boss at the Eagles, Bert Bell was now co-owner and President of the Steelers. The organization did manage to recruit players going from a low of 18 to 60 in the preseason. Leonard enjoyed a full share of the $108.06 given to players, coaches, and trainer for their second-place finish in the division, their first winning season in franchise history at 7-4.
The Lost Seasons
Unfortunately, Leonard was lost in the coaching shuffle when the Eagles and Steelers combined for the 1943 season. The Steagles named Greasy Neale and Walt Kiesling co-coaches and Leonard took a job with Holy Cross as an assistant. Leonard returned to the Steelers in 1944 as they tried to staff a club. In April of that year, Art Rooney stated “My partner, Bert Bell, and I are confident we will be able to operate by ourselves. We have about 20 players signed. The coaching combination of Walter Kiesling and Jim Leonard will take up where they left off in 1942 and they almost copped a pennant with Bill Dudley and company that season.” But, one week after that statement, the Steelers and Cardinals announced a merger for the season.
The NFL requested such a merger due to the difficulty in scheduling an eleven-team league. Phil Handler and Walt Kiesling would be co-coaches with Jim Leonard and Cardinals assistant Buddy Parker remaining on the payroll. The Cardinals and Pittsburgh conglomeration also known as the Car-Pits finished 0-10. However, the NFL assigned team and individual statistics to the Cardinals organization just as they left the Steagles stats with the Eagles. At the end of this ignominious season, Rooney swore never to merge his team again. The team was so bad that their offensive star did not show up for the final game despite having a shot at the league rushing title. John Grigas was not the Steelers problem as he and most the team’s contracts belonged to the Cardinals. Kiesling and Leonard had only 12 players left to build a roster for the 1945 season.
Big Jim Gets His Chance
Art Rooney and Bert Bell delayed announcing the new coaching staff for the 1945 season. Old reliable Walt Kiesling resigned and joined the Green Bay Packers in late January. Several rumors in newspaper articles including a merger with the Cleveland Rams and that the Steelers were courting John “Jock” Sutherland may have led to the delay and Kiesling’s departure. Finally, Rooney and Bell announced that Leonard would coach the Steelers in 1945 on April 22. He had spent the time since the end of the season searching for football players and attended the NFL draft earlier that month.
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article in July 1945 opined that the appointment was for the one season only as the Steelers still wanted Jock Sutherland once the war ended. The Steelers hired Lud Wray as Leonard’s assistant coach. Wray was the Eagles head coach when Leonard came into the league as a rookie. The press did not have lofty expectations for the Steelers, and they delivered a 2-8 record. One win, a thumping of their old partner Chicago Cardinals when Bullet Bill Dudley returned from military service in time to deliver two touchdowns on the way to a 23-0 victory. The other was a 21-7 upset of the New York Giants earlier in the season which had sports writers wondering if Leonard could put Art Rooney and Bert Bell on the spot for a contract extension if he managed to get the team to perform beyond expectations. Alas, despite Dudley’s return they won just one of their final four games.
One and Done
Jim Leonard took the initiative and announced his resignation from the team through the newspapers just a couple weeks after the last game. He stated “Some coaches have learned by reading the newspapers that they’ve been fired. But this is probably the first time that an owner has found out that his coach has quit by reading a newspaper.” Leonard continued that he would not be interested in coaching the Steelers again “even if they don’t sign Jock Sutherland. And if they do sign him, I don’t want to be his assistant.” Rooney later replied that he was sorry to see Leonard depart the coaching staff but explained that Leonard’s asparagus farm forced him to be a part-time coach and he knew that they were pursuing Sutherland to be a year round coach.
Post Steelers career
Leonard returned to Saint Francis in 1948 then jumped to Villanova in 1949 and 50. At Villanova, his team finished number 13 in the AP poll his first season with an 8-1 record. The following year the team went 4-5. Leonard resigned following that season saying he could not dedicate sufficient time to coaching due to his farm expansion. This completed his football coaching career.
Big Jim Leonard lived to see the Steelers win four super bowls. Pittsburgh newspaper articles mention him attending various Steelers alumni events. A man that balanced his football career with is asparagus farm, he died in 1993 after 83 years of age.
YOUR SONG SELECTION
I always like to include a song. Here is Rambling Man performed by the Allman Brothers.