But after the 2013 season, he did something never seen before at the school: he helped pick state football championship rings.
The first-year head coach led the Irish to the program’s first state title with a 27-7 win against Calvary Day at the Georgia Dome in the Georgia High School Association Class A private championship.
For piloting Aquinas on the historic 14-0 run, Leonard is The Augusta Chronicle’s All-Area Georgia Football Coach of the Year.
“It’s been special for my family, especially because my grandfather coached here,” Leonard said. “My family’s huge, so there’s actually a lot of cousins I’ve never even met before, e-mailing and calling, sending letters. It’s kind of brought the family together. I think a lot of family members saw each other at the Dome they haven’t seen in years.”
Leonard has been coaching or helping Irish coaches since he was at Aquinas as a 16-year-old student. A decade later, he was head coach of the school’s first state title team.
He said he knew the 2013 Irish would be good in June, just by looking at the strong senior class and the returning talent, and even with the departures of star Brendan Douglas and head coach Matt LeZotte.
Players like Ruben Garnett and John Morris stepped up, and with a 42-14 win at Lincoln County – Aquinas’ first in the series since 1972 – Leonard knew this team had a chance to go all the way.
Leonard, who also coaches the girls soccer team, said the players’ demeanor under pressure made the march to history easier. He said they were joking in the tunnel pregame at the Dome, not letting the pressure get to them. Hours later, a serious-faced Leonard was on the podium lifting the trophy. Though he got some ribbing for remaining so serious, Leonard said his ways balanced well with players’ personalities.
Aquinas’ run cements Leonard’s family connection at the school. His grandfather, Denny, was Aquinas’ first coach. Now, James Leonard is the one who took Aquinas to unprecedented heights.
“If he was in my position, I think he would have done the same thing,” Leonard said. “But it’s special, being able to bring it home for him and the rest of the family.”