They Came From Nothing. Now They're Something Else.

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Jim Leavitt still recalls the night he sat in his car like a protective parent until the wee hours of the morning, watching over -- of all things -- the new fence that surrounded his practice field. The South Florida coach could not bring himself to leave until he was certain the cement adequately dried on the posts that kept the fence upright.

"He is crazy," Paul Griffin, the former South Florida athletic director who hired Leavitt, said with affection. "But it was his field."

The decade-old memory is a symbolic one for Leavitt, who has constructed the Bulls program from the ground up since its inception 11 years ago. While his daily tasks differ now, Leavitt still operates with the same incessant gusto that he displayed during the program's infancy in the Division I-AA ranks.

That commitment has helped South Florida quickly rise through college football's hierarchy to become a legitimate BCS contender this season and a trendy national dark horse. Entering their third season in the Big East, the Bulls already can claim victories over conference heavyweights Louisville in 2005 and West Virginia last year, and are now entertaining loftier aspirations.

"We haven't reached our goal of winning the Big East the first two years," Leavitt said, "so we have failed."

From South Florida's first practice in 1996, a season in which the Bulls did not play games, Leavitt retained the belief his team could one day join Miami, Florida and Florida State as in-state programs that are perennial national forces. Leavitt, who grew up in St. Petersburg, relished the opportunity to build a program from scratch and felt the talent hotbed of Florida provided the ideal location. He was hired at South Florida in December 1995 after he had helped Coach Bill Snyder infuse life into Kansas State's program, a turnaround known as the "Miracle in Manhattan." That first season, Leavitt earned $75,000 at South Florida, some $20,000 less than what he received as Kansas State's defensive coordinator. The salary pool for all his assistants was $90,000, but he had more pressing issues.

"We didn't have any phones," Leavitt said of the conditions when he arrived. "We didn't have a strength coach, but we didn't need one because we didn't have a weight room. We didn't have anybody to film practice, but we didn't need someone because we didn't have any video equipment. We didn't have any goal posts, but we didn't have any practice fields."

Until a $15 million on-campus athletic facility opened in spring 2004, the staff used trailers as offices. Early on, one restroom had a hole in the floor so large the ground was visible. Coaches rented a 20-inch television from Panasonic to watch film.

There was no shortage of logistical obstacles. The practice field did not have lights, so when the sun set, Leavitt summoned his assistants, the four with cars, to pull vehicles near one end zone and flip on high beams.

Before the first game, an 80-3 victory over Kentucky Wesleyan, South Florida officials realized they didn't have the one thing needed to kick off: a tee. A motorcycle-riding police officer franticly rushed a team manager to Sports Authority.

Those who experienced the program's birth, and subsequent growing pains, say the staff never got discouraged largely because there was no time to fret. Leavitt's unrelenting energy and optimism fueled their work ethic despite obstacles more established programs never encountered. As success came, the experiences became local lore.

"That's a badge of honor," said Jamie DeGerome, the team's video coordinator who has been with Leavitt since the program's start. "That shared work experience cements that bond. I relish that."

Griffin, who now works at Georgia Tech, has since done consultant work for schools seeking advice on how best to start a competitive college football program. And Leavitt had been linked to openings at Alabama and Kansas State in recent years, but Griffin said he could see Leavitt remaining at South Florida much like the venerable LaVell Edwards, who won 258 games between 1972 and 2000, stayed at Brigham Young.

"He may not stay for the rest of his life," Griffin said, "but I wouldn't be surprised if he did."

Last year, the Bulls earned their first bowl victory, a 24-7 win over East Carolina in the PapaJohns.com Bowl, and finished with a better record than Miami and Florida State. This year, quarterback Matt Grothe, the Big East's rookie of the year, returns along with a fast, athletic defense.

"From the beginning, I never thought we couldn't one day be a Miami, Florida or a Florida State," Leavitt said. "Do I think we have reached where we can be? No. All we have done in 11 years is laid some cement for the house to be built. But the cement is strong."


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