CFN Analysis - Jim Leavitt
The USF coach gone amid controversy
If one of the 120 FBS head coaches was going to end up pulling a Norman Dale, Jim Leavitt would likely be at the top of the list.
To call him intense is an understatement; committed might be the better description. This was a guy who built USF football from nothing into a dangerous program with the potential to do far, far more. He went at his job with a single-minded focus and with a passion to make the Bulls special. And now it’s time for him to save his reputation by going away. Quickly.
He’s not getting the hint that he has been fired and is fighting the charges against him (allegedly hitting a player) tooth and nail. If his team was coming off a Big East title he might be able to survive this (for right or wrong), but when his teams routinely fizzled over the second halves of seasons, and with the way his team was a disaster in the classroom (with one of the nation’s worst rankings according to the Academic Progress Report), this wasn’t that tough a call for the university.
Leavitt isn’t the type of personality or coach who’s going to leave quietly, and all he’s going to do is make the school look bad while ending any dreams of ever getting a good coaching job again. If he’s in the right, then he should fight it while also stepping away by simply stating that he doesn’t want to hurt the school in any way, but that he wants vindication. Hitting a player is bad and it’s unacceptable, but it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for future elite coordinator jobs. But now, with or without Leavitt, South Florida has to see itself as a job worthy of an elite head coach.
For all of Leavitt’s faults and flaws, he set the foundation for someone to come in and quickly take the program from Point B to Point C. The recruiting grounds are fertile, the school would go crazy with any sort of consistent success, and the Big East, as Cincinnati proved, is there for the taking.
Now is not the time to go after a retread, like a Tommy Bowden, and Skip Holtz might be aiming too low (even though he’ll probably get the gig). It won’t be a shock if USF ends up doing big things over the next few years no matter who takes over, and while Leavitt’s legacy won’t be positive, he might someday be known as the one who was the father of a superpower. An abusive father, but a father nonetheless.
The record will show that Jim Leavitt, the only coach in South Florida history, was fired because he allegedly put his hands on one of his players. The reality is that the situation goes much deeper than just that single incident.
Did Leavitt cross a line with sophomore Joel Miller? There are differing accounts, with even Miller suggesting the situation had been overblown. In other words, whatever actually happened, it didn’t seem to rise to the level of an international incident. No, Leavitt is gone because his act had grown tired in Tampa and his teams had reached a plateau. You think he’d be out of work if South Florida was winning Big East championships and playing in something other than second-rate bowl games? Bull.
Leavitt had become a caricature in recent years, racing around the field as if he was that team trainer with less than all of his faculties. While it was a cute act when USF was climbing up the ladder in the early days, it stopped being endearing when the program stopped improving. The Bulls peaked in October of 2007, rising to No. 2 in the country. Since then, they’ve gone just 16-14, slipping into the middle of the Big East pack. As a program builder, Leavitt had an epic run. As a program elevator, he appeared increasingly out of his league. The incident involving Miller may have been just the ideal opening the administration needed in order to make a change.
Leavitt was the architect who brought South Florida from the womb to FBS notoriety. It was a memorable ride that makes him a part of Bull lore forever. However, the program needs a new captain to get this vessel through choppy waters. The school has hired just one coach ever, and that was over a decade ago. It has a chance to turn this messy divorce into a boon for the Bulls. With the right man on the sidelines, USF has access to a level of talent and speed that could be parlayed into Big East dominance, which Leavitt showed no signs of being able to attain in recent years.
1) For a few weeks, the Jim Leavitt story at South Florida paralleled – in some ways, not all – the Mike Leach and Mark Mangino cases, but yesterday blew the lid off a terrible tale in Tampa. A 33-page investigative report revealed a combination of evasive actions and inaccurate statements by Leavitt, who attempted to cover up an incident in which he struck a USF player – Joel Miller – during a Nov. 21 game against Louisville.
Taken in isolation, Leavitt’s in-game display was worrisome and alarming; with that said, the only coach in the 13-year history of the USF program has consistently been the kind of coach who motivates with passion, noticeable outward intensity, and precious little subtlety. His lapse in judgment was unacceptable, but if Leavitt had acted like an adult and owned up to his mistake, he could have earned respect from his players – including the wronged Mr. Miller – and rebuilt a culture of trust in his locker room.
Instead, Leavitt chose the wrong path, trying to minimize the story and make it go away. Moreover, Leavitt did not comply with the wishes of the USF administration. Brett McMurphy of FanHouse, who broke the initial story about Leavitt’s abusive actions, noted yesterday that Leavitt was asked to not talk to any student athlete after an initial review of the Joel Miller incident. Yet, Leavitt talked to Miller himself after Miller was interviewed by the people who were conducting the investigation into the USF football program.
If Leavitt had owned up to his initial wrongdoing, he could have repaired what he had damaged in Tampa. Perhaps that wasn’t a likely scenario, but it stood within the realm of possibility. And if Leavitt’s time at South Florida had run out, a mature handling of a grievous mistake would have enabled this trail-blazing coach to find a fresh start at a new program.
Now, however, in the wake of the attempted cover-up and a continued display of deceiving and uncooperative behavior, Leavitt’s days as a college football head coach should be over. The man who built South Florida football into a credible program met an end unworthy of his considerable talents and accomplishments, but the only person responsible for this ugly episode is Leavitt himself.
2) This is a long uphill battle, a fight that won’t see a meaningful or positive resolution in the next five or six years. Yet, it’s a battle that needs to be waged – daunting though it may be – over the course of a lifetime: If we really value the welfare of athletes and the importance of virtuous behavior more than wins on Saturdays, we will think more highly of coaches who perform well off the field as well as on it. If we truly think that Jim Leavitt’s actions – like those of Mike Leach and Mark Mangino – are shameful and worthy of the strongest possible condemnation, we must realize that Leavitt’s behavior didn’t just materialize from nowhere.
Leavitt threw away a job and a salary that a large percentage of college football fans would die for. If we find it hard to imagine that a person with so much power, visibility and prestige could forfeit many of his material and intangible riches with such stupid and harmful decisions (think of Tiger Woods), we are reacting the way moral beings should: With concern, shock and disapproval. To imagine why Jim Leavitt could destroy his plum position in economic and cultural life is to display sound reasoning and properly functioning instincts.
But this is the key point: If we are rightly upset and surprised in the wake of a story such as this one, do we still regard wins – and not upstanding leadership of tender young minds – as the foremost job description for an FBS head coach? If we’re going to be dismayed at the behavior of coaches and other people with ungodly amounts of privilege and leverage in society, we should be equally upset with – and intent on overcoming – the dominant culture of competition which allows material goods to be elevated above spiritual and moral goods in the realm of human life.
When the priorities of the athletic-industrial complex change in college sports (with Tiger Woods and pro athletes, that’s another discussion for another day), a Leavitt/Leach/Mangino-style narrative will cease to emerge on the home pages of blogs and the front pages of newspapers.