Let’s be fair. A lot of us in the media, including this columnist, have taken our shots at Jim Leavitt, head football coach of the USF Bulls. He was becoming decreasingly accessible and increasingly testy. And he seemed to have more than his share of student-athlete eligibility issues.
But let’s also acknowledge this.
Leavitt turned a daunting assignment into a challenge he met head on. Sometimes — at half time — literally.
He continues to exceed expectations on the field with a program barely a decade old. He has neither the tradition nor the budget of many opponents. Yet the Bulls are already a solid Big East team with on-the-field parity among the Pittsburghs, Syracuses, Louisvilles and West Virginias. This was, of course, dramatically underscored by that stunning, nationally noted 24-19 road win against No. 7 West Virginia.
USF now goes to its second bowl game in as many years – and notice has been served to the rest of this football-crazed state that USF is a player pushing peer status with the “Big 3” – Florida State, Florida and Miami. In the Associated Press poll, USF is tied for 29th with Penn State and a couple of spots in front of Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks.
And USF is top heavy in underclassmen. Next year the Bulls should be even better.
And what shouldn’t be downplayed is the impact of football not only on USF, a “commuter school” that had long craved such a high-profile, rally-around forum and identity enhancer, but on the Tampa Bay area itself. Winners perforce showcase their home base.
Leavitt’s emotional, post-game TV interview after the WVU upset was illustrative. The historic win, he said through misty eyes and a compromised voice, wasn’t just special for the players and the university, but for “St. Pete and Tampa.”
It was revealing. Touching – not testy.