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Coach finds fast lane by staying put


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Coach finds fast lane by staying put

Thursday, September 06, 2007

AUBURN -- Most college football coaches have a phalanx of secretaries, assistants and other personnel to keep them away from the media and the general public.

But in December 2002, when rumors were swirling that South Florida coach Jim Leavitt was about to be named the new coach at Alabama, a reporter could reach him simply by picking up the phone.

His listed number went directly to his office, which was then a temporary trailer. And who should pick up the phone but the coach himself.

Leavitt didn't want to talk then, and he would soon spurn Alabama's overtures to stay at South Florida.

But his lack of handlers then indicates how swiftly things have changed for Leavitt and South Florida in the past four years.

The Bulls, who visit Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night, are playing in just their 11th season of football. They began life as a Division I-AA independent, joined Conference USA in 2003 and moved up the Big East (a Bowl Championship Series conference) in 2005.

He no longer coaches out of a trailer. South Florida has impressive football facilities and plays at Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It's a lot more difficult to get a hold of him, too. South Florida officials said his weekly interview time was booked up quickly.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said he's known Leavitt for years. When Tuberville was at Miami, Leavitt was working with Bob Stoops at Kansas State.

"We used to visit a lot together about defense," Tuberville said. "He's done a good job of getting that program off the ground. They'll play hard from the first play to the last. That's one thing I know about Jim.

"He has done a great job of picking an offense and a defense and sticking with it, and it's paid off for him."

Leavitt is the only coach South Florida has ever had, and South Florida is the only head coaching job he's ever held.

A native of nearby St. Petersburg, Leavitt has passed up chances to move. After the 2002 season, Dennis Franchione had left Alabama for Texas A&M, and Mal Moore was searching for a coach.

Leavitt was a top target. This summer, Leavitt told CBSSportsline's Dennis Dodd that he still has a copy of Alabama's contract offer.

"We're always going to keep it, in case anybody ever wonders," Leavitt said. "I was the guy who would have had the job and was going to lead them through the probation years."

Moore eventually settled on Mike Price, who was fired for alleged indiscretions months later. Price's replacement, Mike Shula, was fired after last season.

"I made the right decision," Leavitt said. "Shula, an Alabama guy who won 10 games (in 2005), was let go."

Tuberville said he's not surprised that Leavitt has decided to stay put.

"I saw Jim this summer in Phoenix, and he loves it there (at South Florida)," Tuberville said. "He grew up there, knows the people, and it's home."

Now that South Florida is in the Big East, the Bulls have a shot at national recognition, big-time bowls and perhaps even a national title some day.

"I think he understands what he's got there," Tuberville said.

Contact Evan Woodbery at:

ewoodbery@press-register.com

He covers the Auburn Tigers for the Press-Register. His column appears Thursdays in SEC Extra.

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