GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Chris Leak first surfaced in the public spotlight 15 years ago when former Wake Forest coach Jim Caldwell offered the promising young quarterback a scholarship — as an eighth-grader.
When it was time for college a few years later, Leak visited UF and “simply fell in love with the university.”
“That’s what I tell everybody,” he said Thursday. “That’s the best way I can put it. This is where my heart was.”
Florida fans know the story. Leak came to UF, started for four seasons and left as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (11,213). He ended his career with an exclamation point, earning MVP honors in the 2007 BCS National Championship game by leading Florida to its first national title in a decade.
Ten years after coming to Florida as the nation’s No. 1 quarterback recruit, the 28-year-old Leak returned this week as a quality control assistant to help the defensive staff prepare for opponents in a non-coaching role.
Leak recently approached Florida coach Will Muschamp about his interest in pursuing a new career. Muschamp opened the door for the Gators’ two-time captain to return and start building his résumé.
“I knew that just from being a football player that eventually one day I was going to want to be a coach,’’ Leak said. “The impact coaches have on a player’s life long-term is unbelievable. A lot goes into that. That is kind of one of the reasons I wanted to get into it as well.
“I would definitely love to be a head coach in college football. That’s obviously down the road and long-term. I want to work my way up the right way and that is where this is just such as awesome opportunity. I can’t thank coach Muschamp enough because this is a tough profession to get in. You have to put the work in to get good at it.”
Muschamp knows that from experience.
A former walk-on safety at Georgia who later earned a scholarship and was a team captain his senior season, Muschamp began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Auburn and then made stops at West Georgia, Eastern Kentucky and Valdosta State before returning to the SEC as an LSU defensive assistant.
Leak’s willingness to gain a new perspective of the game factored into Muschamp’s decision to add him to the program’s support staff in a non-coaching role.
“He decided to branch out a little bit as a football coach, which I think is really smart,’’ Muschamp said. “I told him, ‘I’m still young, but I wish I had worked on the other side of the ball.’ I think that helps you as a football coach as you continue to develop.”
A constant film-room presence as a player, Leak is excited to assist first-year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and gain valuable experience.
He expects his years playing quarterback to help him break down film and understand the defensive concepts thrown at him in meetings.
“Seeing the ball from the opposite side is going to help me tremendously in the long run,’’ Leak said. “Seeing how defenses attack, how they game plan for all the offenses, breaking down all the film to help our defense prepare, that’s just going to help me be a better offensive coach when I get to that point.
“I want to do everything I can to contribute to coach Muschamp’s success and this coaching staff’s success.”
Since leaving UF as a player, Leak spent time with the Bears, Bills and Chiefs in NFL training camps. He played professionally in the CFL and AFL and most recently served as a college football analyst for SiriusXM and CBS Sports Network.
Leak is now married and has a 3-year-old daughter. His wife, Latria, whom he met at UF, works in community relations for the Orlando Magic and has been very supportive in his decision to transition from player to coach.
Leak won’t be nearly as visible in his new role with the Gators as his last, but the North Carolina native is fine with that. He already looked the part Thursday dressed in a bright orange Gators shirt and blue Florida cap.
“This is kind of where it all started for me and it just built from there,” Leak said of his interest in coaching. “Through my experiences in high school and college, I just feel like I have a lot to give back. I’ve always wanted to help players develop. That’s something I had a passion for when I was here playing. Being a quarterback is kind of like being an extension of the coach on the field. You are giving players a lot of direction on and off the field.”
While still young enough to continue his playing career, Leak doesn’t have any regrets about turning the page. He knew he wanted to stay in the game and now looks forward to the next chapter of his life, one starting at a place where another chapter ended with a national championship.
In many ways, Leak is home.
“It just seems that everything is meant to be,’’ Leak said. “Everything is falling into place. I feel very fortunate and very blessed to be in the situation I am now. To start in quality control at a school like Florida, you really couldn’t ask for more – the tradition here, the fact that it is my alma mater.