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Jim Leavitt is working on a new theory. It states, “You can never leave home again.”
With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, Leavitt has already proven that you can indeed go home again, having returned to his Tampa Bay roots to oversee the most successful start-up of a college football program in decades. In just 11 years, Leavitt turned a non-existent program into a Bowl team when the Bulls played in the 2005 Meineke Car Care Bowl. Just one year later, Leavitt and the Bulls earned the program’s first-ever Bowl victory with a 24-7 win over East Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl and followed that up with a appearance in the second oldest bowl in college football, the 2007 Brut Sun Bowl.
And on three occasions in the past six years when prominent programs showed interest, Leavitt has solidified his commitment to USF with a new contract. Already the most tenured coach in the BIG EAST, Leavitt agreed to an extension on March 14, 2008 that will keep him at the helm of the Bulls through the 2014 season.
At this point, Leavitt is the alpha and omega of USF football. He is the only coach the school has ever had as he was presented the job on December 12, 1995. He then went about starting football from scratch and leading the program from an inaugural seas on in 1997 to I-A status in 2001, Conference USA in 2003 and now the BIG EAST and BCS football in 2005.
Having been “forced” to leave the state to play collegiate football and baseball in the mid-1970s, the latest contract solidifies Leavitt’s longstanding declaration that he has no intentions of leaving again. When he returned home in 1996 to lead the fledgling USF program, it was for the first time since he left for Missouri in 1974 and he has been emphatic in his desire to stay.
“I can see myself coaching at South Florida until I retire,” says Leavitt. “Then I can buy season tickets and sit in the stands and watch the Bulls play on Saturdays.”
After the first 11 seasons of USF Football, Leavitt has proven only further that he was indeed the right man for the right job at the right time. Charged with fast tracking a program from non-existence to Division I-A football in just five years time, Leavitt has led the program to an impressive 79-47 record. A mega-success in the first four years at the I-AA level (24 straight weeks in national polls), Leavitt and crew moved to I-A in 2001 and went 8-3, including a 35-26 win at Pittsburgh.
In 2002, his team finished 9-2 and seriously contended for a Bowl Game, even as a I-A Independent. The Bulls also received votes in both major polls and ranked 18th in the final New York Times Computer Poll, one of several polls utilized by the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) at the time. In fact, USF ranked among the top 30 in each of the computer polls utilized by the BCS, and the program also had a 21-game home winning streak that extended into the 2003 season.
Having blazed yet another milestone in directing the program into its first-ever season in Conference USA in 2003, Leavitt and his squad made a rapid move into the BIG EAST after just two C-USA seasons. Along with four wins against C-USA foes in 2002, a year before becoming a league member, the Bulls were 12-8 against C-USA opponents.
Picked to finish seventh in the eight-team BIG EAST in USF’s debut season of 2005, Leavitt led the Bulls to a major win over then-ninth ranked Louisville and the Bulls finished third in the league.
The story in 2006 is no less impressive as Leavitt and his staff molded a team that improved every week and concluded its regular season with an eye-opening 24-19 win at seventh ranked West Virginia, before the history-making Bowl win in Birmingham, Ala.
Yet with all the accomplishments, nothing arguably topped the crescendo of the 2007 season. The Bulls began the season receiving votes in both polls and by the seventh week of the season, USF was No. 2 in the country. The program had gone from upstart to top-5 ranking in the at a fastest pace in the modern era of college football at the NCAA FBS level.
The Bulls also started selling out Raymond James Stadium on a consistent basis and it began with a jam-packed and raucous crowd for a Friday, Sept. 28 showdown with then No. 5 West Virgina. The 18th ranked Bulls beat WVU 21-13 and celebrated with fans that stormed the field after the win. USF would sell out two games and post a season attendance average of 53,170, which was higher than the single game record - 49,212 - before the season.
Leavitt’s success has extended beyond league play as he reached his 50th career win faster than all but five active I-A coaches. Leavitt picked up his 50th victory in his 75th game, placing him behind Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Philip Fulmer (Tennessee), John Robinson (UNLV), Joe Paterno (Penn State), Frank Solich (Ohio) and Lloyd Carr (Michigan).
Leavitt’s profile foretold of the success to come at USF, even as he was hired for the job on December 12, 1995, exactly one week following his 39th birthday.
“Leading the USF football program is much more than just a job,” said Leavitt when he was hired. “And it is much more than a task at hand. It is something that is a major part of my life, and it will always be that. I am going to do everything I can to build a program without illusions, without cutting corners, doing things the right way and bringing in coaches with character.”
Leavitt also speaks a lot about the “being home” factor.
“Shortly after I was hired, I was speaking with Brigham Young coach LaVell Edwards,” recalls Leavitt. “He told me that throughout his years at BYU, he had plenty of opportunities to move on to what some might perceive to be better coaching jobs. But, he told me, ‘I never left, and you know why I didn’t? It’s because this is my home.’
“He told me, ‘Jim, you’ll never want to leave the (USF) job, because you’re going home.’”
Home was a long time coming for Leavitt. It took 23 years and wound through Missouri, Iowa and Kansas. It began in 1974, when the St. Petersburg resident, and a star for Dixie Hollins High School, went off to Missouri, where he was a two-sport standout in football and baseball, earning all-Big 8 in both sports. He also won a Big 8 batting title in 1977 with a .386 average.
Upon graduation in 1978, he stayed at Missouri as a graduate assistant, earning a master’s degree in 1979. After two seasons as a graduate assistant, Leavitt moved to the State of Iowa, where was named defensive coordinator at the University of Dubuque in 1980, spending two years in that position, before moving to Morningside College from 1982-87, also as defensive coordinator.
At both Dubuque and Morningside, Leavitt was instrumental in transforming the program to success. The Dubuque team had 40 consecutive losing seasons, but Leavitt helped the squad to an 8-2-1 record and the Division III playoffs in his first season.
The situation at Morningside was similar with a long track record of losing seasons. Even in Leavitt’s first two seasons there, the squad finished 2-9 and 1-10, leading to the entire staff - except Leavitt - serving up its resignation. Leavitt assumed interim head coach duties for six months prior to the 1984 season, including the recruitment of that year’s freshmen class.
It was then that Leavitt began to rely heavily on home again, even if he couldn’t be there. He decided to aggressively recruit the Sunshine State, loading the Morningside recruiting classes with Florida talent. It helped turn the program to 6-5 and then 7-3-1 in 1984 and 1985, the first back-to-back winning seasons in the 28 years.
Leavitt also coached the track team at Morningside, a program that had not scored a single point in its conference meet in three years when he took over. In Leavitt’s three seasons, his athletes won five All-America honors, 13 conference titles and set new school records in virtually every event. In 1988, he coached a 4x100 relay team that finished fourth in the nation and he won North Central Conference Coach of the Year honors.
Following his five seasons with Morningside, Leavitt went full force after a Ph.D. in psychology, something he had been pursuing sporadically since 1982. By 1989, he simply needed to complete his dissertation, when Iowa head coach Hayden Fry offered him a graduate position. With the coaching bug, Leavitt took the opportunity and fast tracked a career in I-A football coaching.
After just one season with Iowa, Leavitt was named to Bill Snyder’s staff at Kansas State in 1990, when that program had just been tabbed the “worst in America” by Sports Illustrated. Snyder, who was a coaching disciple of Iowa’s Fry, was in his second season at K-State, when he asked Leavitt to coach the linebackers.
The following year, Leavitt was promoted to co-defensive coordinator and he was instrumental in building a defense that joined Snyder’s offense in a quick and effective turnaround that had Sports Illustrated calling K-State the most improved team in the nation by 1993. And now, Kansas State has assumed a regular spot in the nation’s top 10.
In Leavitt’s five years at Kansas State, the Wildcats were 44-23-1 compared to 22-86-1 in the 1980s. In his final three seasons, Kansas State joined Florida, Florida State, Nebraska and Penn State as the only teams in the nation with three consecutive nine-win seasons. During those three years, Kansas State was 27-8-1.
And perhaps most impressively, Leavitt and Bob Stoops designed a defense that went from 93rd in the nation in 1990 to number one in their final season of 1995.
The common denominator for success at each of Leavitt’s stops has been an unyielding commitment to old-fashioned hard work.
“Nobody but nobody is going to match his work ethic and his energy,” Leavitt’s baseball coach at Missouri once said of him.
While that ethic has followed Leavitt everywhere, a story from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa is as good as any in proving the point.
As the defensive coordinator in 1985, Leavitt drove from Iowa to St. Petersburg, Fla. to meet a recruit at Lakewood High School for a 9 p.m. meeting. Leavitt pulled a projector out of the trunk of his car, groped in the dark to find a power outlet outside the gym, threw a beach towel over a chair and proceeded to show the recruit Morningside game films. In the two weeks surrounding that one visit, Leavitt put 2,500 miles on his Chrysler LeBaron.
The Lakewood recruit ended up a starter at Morningside and never regretted following Leavitt back to Sioux City.
Leavitt doesn’t hide the fact that he has taken a carbon copy of the building strategies at both Iowa and Kansas State in building the start-from-scratch program at USF.
“I would say I use a lot of things that we did at Kansas State and Iowa as far as the structure of our program,” says Leavitt. “But we really didn’t use anybody as a model because there really was no model. We were starting a program and the one thing we knew was that our track was going to be fast.”
As successful as Kansas State and Iowa were in implementing their strategies, Leavitt can’t help but smile a little bit wider now that he’s implementing it himself in his own backyard.
Leavitt and his family first made their backyard in St. Petersburg, Fla. – just 40 minutes from the USF campus - when he was nine years old. Born in Harlingen, Tex., December 5, 1956 (the exact year USF was founded), Leavitt’s father was an air force pilot, and the family’s move to St. Petersburg was the fifth and final stop. In fact, his parents still live in the family home.
A two-sport star in baseball and football (he played quarterback and safety) at Dixie Hollins High School, he graduated in 1974 and went on to Missouri, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1978 and a master’s degree in 1979.
Leavitt has a 12-year old daughter, Deandra. He married the former Jody Freeman on July 4, 2007.