Posted late Sunday night on The Daily Stampede:
Let's take a moment to reflect on how thankful we are to AD Michael Kelly for doing his due diligence and engineering a change in leadership for our beloved USF football program. Diehard fans have had a challenging decade of fanship aside from a short positive stint Coach Taggart gave us [before stepping off this "G5 stone"]. I have personally been immensely impressed with Mr. Kelly and everything I have seen from him leads me to believe he is definitely the leader Athletics has needed to take us to the next level.
That said, the next question many fans are debating now is our next head football coach. There has been much speculation. However, some discussion amongst fans may be suffering a bit of mischaracterization. This post aims to explain the perspective of a sizeable proportion of USF fans and alumni who would love to see Jim Leavitt return to USF. It may not be feasible, or even possible, but its remote possibility is something many of us jump at the chance to add to our wish lists. I may not summarize it perfectly, but hope others will chime in and build on my post.
To many, Jim Leavitt is not just the father of USF football, but became its very personality and soul. To this day, that is true for me and for many other diehard USF fans (and current/future donors). Just as we all thank, love, and admire Dr. Judy Genshaft for her leadership in taking the university's academic status to new incredible heights over many years of service, Coach Leavitt engenders similar goodwill for what he was able to accomplish for USF Athletics and our football program. (Of note, other amazing leaders such as Lee Roy Selmon deserve mention on this subject, but are beyond the scope of this post).
Starting from scratch out of trailers, CJL ate, slept, and lived Bulls football. It was a nostalgic story in the newspapers, but it was life for Jim Leavitt. He was tough on players, but genuinely wanted to get the most out of them, knowing their personal successes would also lead to team success. CJL was known on the high school recruiting trail for finding diamonds in the rough - perhaps overlooked by recruiting services, perhaps underrated by other schools - and coaching them up to greatly outplay others' expectations. Players will tell you they may not have always loved how tightly he ran his ship in certain ways, but his motives were never in question and his emotion and energy were contagious. He was known to fans as good-natured and immensely supportive of all things to do with USF spirit. He learned my name as a co-founder of the Beef Studs, chatted me up when he visited Student Government ahead of our first bowl appearance that never was (a Hawaii bowl invite we all still believe we should have gotten in 2002), and waved to me when I jogged past team practices as a student. He always made time to attend things like the fan-organized preseason event at Capogna's Dugout. He would always make time to talk Bulls football, sign USF paraphernalia, and give quips about how he loved seeing fans at games who were excited to watch the team play. He could be a grizzled, staunch father figure, or a jovial teddy bear, but no matter what he was doing that moment, his thoughts were always on how to better prepare his team for its next challenges. Over time, belief in USF football and Jim Leavitt personally became inseparable in our minds.
Coach Leavitt's infamously terse, half-tolerance of media members - which ultimately contributed to his firing while launching the infamous career of a certain malcontent former ESPN reporter - was lovable and humorous to fans. He didn't love dressing to the teeth or schmoozing business types, because that took time away from watching film. That was The Jim. His hair, boundless energy, and unending commitment to USF became the face of the program for its fans. Of course, unforgettable players like Matt Grothe and George Selvie did too, but the constant was always The Jim. To many, the experiences we had thanks to Jim Leavitt remain the frame with which we continue to approach our fanship and our ongoing relationships with the university. His attitudes became our attitudes and his leadership by example was infectious. In the time since he was forced to part ways with USF, the program has struggled to establish any kind of personality or identity. Coaches come and go and the identity we all knew and loved has seemed comatose if not abandoned and forgotten. It has been absolutely heart-wrenching to experience that process and new reality as a superfan, and many of us would give anything to see that fateful decision to remove Coach Leavitt reversed.
In many ways, the meteoric rise (fastest program to FBS, to a BCS conference, to a bowl game, to bowl wins, and later to 100 wins, etc) of USF football enjoyed thanks to Jim Leavitt's leadership was a victim of its own success. Constantly breaking barriers on an upward trajectory led some fans to be (prematurely, I believe) dissatisfied when inevitable growing pains showed themselves in the form of mid-season swoons and failures to bring home conference championships a mere 3-4 years into Big East membership. Lost on those clamoring for a change back then may have been the beauty of playing in a BCS conference less than a decade after having no football program. Our first ranked opponent in FCS fell in 1999, followed by three in 2000, in only our 4th season of football. We lost to #2 Oklahoma in 2002 by two TDs, but I better remember rushing the field as a student when we beat our first ranked FBS opponent, Bowling Green (coached by Urban Meyer), on our way to 9-2. We had some growing pains after joining C-USA for two years, but it didn't take long for The Jim to right the ship, and by then we had already stepped up competition big-time by jumping into the Big East. We beat our first ranked opponent in 2005, #9 Louisville, in what we remember as Amarri Jackson's coming out party. Yeah, we rushed the field then, too. We began the epic 4-0 series against UCF and LOVED The Jim's preference to avoid playing our elder step-siblings to the East thereafter. Of course everybody remembers beating #7 WVU in 2006, then our incredible season in 2007 with a brief stint at #2 in the BCS rankings. Playing at Auburn that year is still my favorite memory of an away USF game, and I have yet to hear ANY sports game in ANY venue as loud as the capacity-packed RayJay was in 2007 when we beat down #5 WVU on ESPN Primetime. USF players became regular sightings in the NFL draft and we even briefly had a nickname of "the New Linebacker U" floated as we seemed to be on the rise in developing awesome talents such as Tyrone McKenzie, JPP, Nate Allen, Ben Moffitt, Stephen Nicholas, and many, many more. Fans could feel comfortable with USF pulling up a chair at the table with the Big 3 in Florida, no longer relegated to "out of the discussion" at the water cooler. The USF logo was noticed on rap stars' clothing at their concerts and we even had a few songs written about us. I wore my USF gear everywhere, and across the country people would point it out and bring up the football team's success. Yes, football is the front doorstep to a university. USF fans felt immense pride and felt suddenly included in national NCAA football discussion in a way that has not happened since. Yes, the academic accomplishments of the university have also experienced a meteoric rise, and yes, I will still discuss them ad nauseum with anybody who will listen. But this is about Athletics, folks, this is about FOOTBALL, and Jim Leavitt put USF on the map in that.
But there was a glaring issue, of course, even as we all reveled in the glory that Jim Leavitt's leadership brought our school. In 2007-2009, the team would go toe-to-toe with ranked big-time opponents and WIN in an exciting fashion, but then falter halfway through the season, and we wouldn't finish ranked or playing for a conference championship. We would beat #13 Kansas, or #18 FSU, or #20 WVU, only to get blanked by Rutgers. But that was the fun of showing up for a USF football game - you didn't always know whether they would win, but you knew that against any given team, they COULD win. You knew the hits would be heard in the upper levels. You knew the players CARED how they carried themselves and how the team did. It was amazing to be a part of and experience, even just as a fan. The point about Leavitt not winning championships or BCS bowls is well-known to those who were USF fans back when Leavitt was our coach. We all obviously noted the nascent pattern of mid-season swoons and wondered when he would figure out how to prevent them and get us over the hump to win conference championships. Not IF but WHEN. Just like we had some learning curves and growing pains in C-USA but got better for the Big East years, the same was on the cusp of occurring for our Big East years. The Jim watched film relentlessly. He shunned overtures from much bigger programs (such as Alabama) and stuck with us, determined to meet with success, working grueling hours while powered by Pepsi and candy bars. He even slept in his office at work, probably viewing sleep as an "annoying necessity" between film-watching and game planning. He absolutely WOULD have gotten that issue fixed. He did it with every growing pain up to that point, even if not as quickly as some "reportedly big donors expected." One little-known fact about a certain NFL QB who made now-former coach Charlie Strong's career at Louisville? He was privately committed to Jim Leavitt just before SlapGate, and soon thereafter Leavitt was let go from USF and Strong was hired at Louisville. Guess who then committed to Louisville? Yup, Teddy Bridgewater. Those who follow college football will recognize the massive change in trajectory that simple fact may have had on the college football landscape for years to come - had Leavitt remained at USF and that player made his private commitment public.
I believe The Jim learned some valuable lessons during our mid-season slides, perhaps regarding overworking the players, temporizing the frequent use of emotional motivation on 18-to-21 year-olds, and avoiding in-game decision habits which opposing coaches at a new, higher level had noticed he had developed. He hit a brief plateau around the 2007-2009 era, but I believe he realized what it would take to overcome it and just didn't get the chance to capitalize on those lessons. He has now spent time in the NFL at San Francisco and several high-level P5 programs out west and has no doubt learned an awful lot from that experience. Certainly, I would have preferred if Jim Leavitt never left USF, but at this point you've got to recognize the value of his additional career experience. In fact, some wonder why he hasn't been hired as a head coach since leaving USF. Instead, I have to wonder whether he has been offered or solicited but turned them down, just as he had shunned overtures from bigger-name programs to stay at USF. Perhaps those long hours as Head Coach didn't have the same draw to them when they were no longer focused on the career project he had committed himself 100% to for many years. He gave his heart and soul to USF as our head coach and architect - I wouldn't blame him for not jumping on the first opportunity to take the helm somewhere else. Analogously, my MD and MBA are from the University of Miami, but much to the chagrin of their alumni donor-seekers, my heart was already committed to USF before I got there. I graduated from college at USF first and (after my parents) feel USF helped to make me who I am today. I'll give you one guess where all my donations go. Jim Leavitt may not have yet worked as a head coach somewhere else since leaving USF, but he loves football to death and stayed with his love as much as he could, which is why he has continued to meet with great success as a LB coach in the NFL and DC for Colorado and Oregon. Many other head football coaches who have been let go for various reasons have been rehired by other universities or even the same one that previously fired them, usually after they demonstrate rehabilitation and appear to deserve a second chance. Jim Leavitt has absolutely done that, and definitely deserves a second chance, and I do not believe it should be held against him that he has not agreed to be a head coach at another university in the meantime.
I don't know whether Jim Leavitt would ever consider coming back to USF, knowing how the situation leading to his parting ways with USF in 2009 played out. But I believe he is by far the best hope for a program destined to be anyone else's stepping stone and currently teetering on irrelevance. His return would begin a definite transition back to great football to watch, an upwards trajectory for USF Athletics once more, and hope for national relevance again for our football program.
The man is a legend and has been successful everywhere he has gone. Hands down, without a doubt, if hired again, Jim Leavitt would become our Bear Bryant. If my jump out of medicine and into business meets with remote success someday, I would aim my major donations someday at naming our future stadium's field Jim Leavitt Field. A pipe dream for decades from now, but a dream which remains intact and within (extended) reach. Aside from my everlasting commitment to USF (which cannot be expected of the casual fan), the memory of how good things were under Jim Leavitt is what keeps many others and I coming back to USF football games.
Michael Kelly, if you're reading this - firstly, thank you for being so interactive with USF fans, responsive on social media, and going out of your way to meet and support USF fans. Secondly, please give at least consideration to approaching Jim Leavitt about whether he has any interest in our HC opening. He may not want to come back. You may decide it is ultimately not in the best interests of the university. Come of it what may - but I believe the architect of our football program deserves at least consideration for being asked.
Signed, Brandon Faza, 2005 USF Alumnus