From a Bunnie to a Duck: Former Fisher head coach to helm Havana grid program

Former Fisher football coach Matt Leng, who resides in Rantoul, is back coaching high school football, this time at Havana, where he was hired as the school’s  new coach amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

‘I’m just excited that I have the opportunity’

Sitting 6 feet apart from three other people in a board room at Havana High School that he recently just met, Matt Leng started to get a good feeling.

The former Fisher football coach was in the small Mason County community of roughly 3,300 residents last month for the first time, hoping to stand out enough in an interview with Havana Superintendent Mathew Plater, Havana principal David McKinney and Havana athletic director Nathan Brady to become the school’s new football coach and join the staff as a teacher, too.

“It wasn’t an interview, though,” Leng said. “It was just us talking. We got to share ideas and philosophies. The banter among us four was really good, really good.”

Leng left the meeting still with a good feeling. He took a tour of the school. Checked out the football field and other facilities.

“I knew when I walked out of there that day,” Leng said, “that I wanted to be the head football coach there.”

He’ll get the chance.

Havana approved the hiring of Leng as its next football coach at its April 21 board meeting.

The 48-year-old Leng plans to move from Rantoul, a place he’s called home the last 20 years, to the town roughly 100 miles from Champaign County by the end of June.

“I never thought that I would be in this situation, but to be able to do this one more time, is really a blessing,” Leng said. “For me and my DNA and where I’m at in my life, it’s where I want to be and caters to my ability. With everything that is going on in the world, there’s a lot of uncertainties, but I’m really, really thankful.”

Leng compiled a 69-68 record in 14 seasons coaching Fisher, guiding the Bunnies to the Class 1A state quarterfinals in 2005 for the program’s best postseason run. He stepped aside at Fisher after the 2015 season before coaching in an assistant role at Rantoul during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

He took the 2019 season off from a coaching role, but a February conversation with Fisher principal Jon Kelly, a former assistant coach on Leng’s staff with the Bunnies and the school’s athletic director when Leng resigned in 2015, played a difference.

“As we’re sitting there talking and reminiscing, he goes, ‘I think you have enough fuel in the tank to do it one more time,’” Leng said. “That’s when I got really inspired and motivated. I started looking around. Out of the clear blue, I sent my stuff to Havana. They called me up and the rest is history.”

Kelly is glad to see Leng will get another chance to lead a high school football program.

“I am excited for Matt and this new opportunity that he has in front of him,” Kelly said. “I think it could be a really good fit for him. He is passionate about coaching kids and teaching them about the game of football. I got the feeling his fire for coaching has been reignited.”

Plater said he was pleasantly surprised to receive Leng’s resume last month.

“We are in a teacher shortage in Illinois, and to be honest, many times districts are forced to take who they can find — a body — instead of the rock star educator we would all love to have,” Plater said. “After looking over his materials and doing a little research on his past at Fisher, we got very excited to have a shot at more than just a body to fill a position. Of our handful of applicants, he was the only veteran applicant with a proven track record of success.”

Of course, becoming a new coach at a new school in a new town amid a global health pandemic that we’re all living in presents some challenges for Leng. Havana is coming off a 5-5 record last season, with the Ducks reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Leng hasn’t met any of his new players yet, but has had the chance to interact with some assistant coaches at Havana.

No plans are in place currently for any summer work since the Illinois High School Association has said summer contact days are on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s a little nerve-wracking but everybody is on the same playing surface in Illinois,” Leng said. “We don’t know if we’re going to be playing football in September or in March or April or whenever. We don’t really know right now, but I’m not too stressed out or worried about that. I’m just excited that I have the opportunity.”

mdaniels@news-gazette.com