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New AD Tim Leonard sets out “to have the best mid-major athletics program in the country”
September 15, 2022
Nearly a year after Liz Jarnigan’s firing from the athletic director position, Southern Illinois University has found a permanent replacement in Tim Leonard. The university announced in late July that Leonard would be taking the job beginning on August 1.
Leonard has experience as the AD at Towson University in Baltimore from 2013-2021. A native of Twin Falls, Idaho, Leonard says SIU was exactly what he was searching for in a job.
“[My wife and I] wanted to be in a rural environment, and one where the athletics department is a big deal to the people in the community and for the university,” he said. “I feel like I’ve found a home here.”
Leonard says Carbondale reminds him of his hometown, which had a population of around 21,000 when he lived there. The rural setting and ties to the community across the region makes the university and its athletics a point of pride in Southern Illinois.
“I know what it means to the people in this area,” Leonard said. “The Salukis are a big deal in this part of the state, so you feel a responsibility to make sure that you take good care of the department, and try to build a winner, but one that’s gonna do it in a manner that will make people proud. I do feel like there is a lot of pressure in that sense.”
Some of that pressure has been alleviated thanks to the success Saluki athletics has experienced as of late. Football head coach Nick Hill and baseball head coach Lance Rhodes both received five-year contract extensions over the last month due to their respective programs’ accomplishments in recent years.
Leonard compared hiring coaches to drilling for oil; it’s expensive, and you won’t know whether you’ll “hit a gusher, or if you’ve got a dry hole.”
“Hiring coaches is risky, so I’m glad that I’m not in a position where I have to come in right off the bat, try to be hiring some of your high-profile coaches right away,” Leonard said. “That’s tough, because I need to be able to learn and understand SIU; the existing culture, as well as the culture I want to instill, and get all of those pieces in place before you think about trying to go out and hire a coach.”
Being a rural college town, Southern Illinois athletics draws people from around the area, especially in sports such as football and basketball that aren’t served in the professional market by nearby St. Louis.
“I feel like we’ve got an advantage just because of our location, and the type of university this is, and the people that have come to school here,” Leonard said. “It means so much to them, that there’s a lot of support for us.”
Before coming to Carbondale, he also worked at Southern Methodist (SMU) in Dallas, and Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando. Going from several professional sports markets to an area without many was a positive step for Leonard.
“This is who I am. I love this type of a setting and this type of an atmosphere,” he said. “You’re trying to promote college athletics and you’re always going up against the Dallas Cowboys or the Baltimore Ravens. You’re never gonna win that battle.”
Leonard got his start in administration work as the director of annual giving at Illinois State from 1992-97. His knowledge of the area made the decision easy when the ISU Redbirds’ conference rival called his name.
“I was thrilled when they said, ‘the President chose a couple folks he wants to interview, you’re one of them,’” Leonard said. “I knew, literally when I first got in the interview with [Chancellor Austin Lane] and Matt Kupec, that within 10 minutes I knew, A) I wanted the job, and B) I had a pretty good chance of getting the job, just because I felt like we just clicked.”
Since Leonard took the AD job at Towson University in 2013, Southern Illinois has gone through four permanent Athletic Directors and two interims. For Saluki athletics, the first priority might just be finding stability.
Leonard is looking beyond just sticking around.
“I’m not even thinking about just staying in the job for a year. I’m really thinking I’ve found a home,” he said. “I’m thinking ‘where are we going to be in five years, and what can I get accomplished in that time period?’ I’m not looking to cut corners so I can try to look flashy and get out of here, but I’m also not looking to just twiddle my thumbs and do nothing.”
Saluki athletics has a few high points in its history, most recently in the mid-2000s with several NCAA postseason appearances in football, men’s basketball and softball. Leonard believes the current state of athletics allows it to reach similar heights and beyond in the near future.
“My vision is to have the best mid-major athletics program in the country,” Leonard said. “In terms of how we look, in terms of how we operate, and in terms of defining success. That’s a big goal and a big statement, but I think that’s what you’ve got to try to do.”
In the ever-changing landscape of collegiate athletics, a big issue the department will need to tackle in the near future is dealing with name, image and likeness (NIL). In the year since student-athletes were permitted to make money off licensing deals, it has drastically changed the dynamics of athletics at every level, most notably among larger conferences like the SEC and Big Ten.
While SIU has not had a player take an NIL deal yet, Leonard said there are plans in progress to have those opportunities in place.
“I think we’re close to having some stuff finalized,” Leonard said. “We’re already moving with trying to get a collective going. We’ll do some things that will allow our kids that opportunity.”
Leonard added that he did not believe NIL will impact the results of recruiting players as much as it does the process. Ultimately, NIL is viewed as a necessity to remain competitive, and will likely be the standard across the NCAA as the systems settle into place.
“Everybody in the league is gonna try to do the same thing we’re trying to do, and we’re all gonna be at about the same level,” Leonard said.
The trick is to not get left behind in the mid-majors. Perennial football powerhouse North Dakota State has 13 players with NIL sponsorships. In June, Bradley men’s basketball established what is believed to be the first NIL collective in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“We’re gonna have to do something, and everybody else is gonna try to do something,” he said.
However, Leonard acknowledges SIU will not be as competitive against Big Ten or SEC schools.
“Because the resources they’re gonna be able to give those kids from a financial standpoint on that whole NIL/collective, compared to what we’re gonna be able to do,” Leonard said. “You can put a Super Wal-Mart between what we can do and they can do.”
As the Leonard era begins in Saluki athletics, the Idahoan acknowledges the challenge that awaits him. The passion that the region has for Saluki athletics may be a source of pressure for the new AD, but it is also what drew him to Carbondale in the first place. In the early months, the excitement for what is to come drowns out all of those concerns.
“It’s not gonna be an easy job by any stretch, but, okay,” Leonard said. “It’s a great environment to work in, first and foremost. It’s a great area to live in. And the rest of it, we’ll work hard to make it happen.”
Now is the time to settle into the position and get to working on what both Leonard and the university hope to be a successful partnership.
Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.
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