By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 15, 2002
TAMPA -- During his formative years, South Florida quarterback Marquel Blackwell's grandmother, Valeria Williams, would tell him, "The hill always seems too high, but you've got to keep taking that next step."
In August, Blackwell earned his degree -- and more wisdom from Williams: "I said to him at graduation, "Marquel, now you're coming down the hill, and you're gradually sliding right into place.' "
Blackwell's life is a metaphor for USF football. After six years of climbing the big hill, everything is sliding right into place for the Bulls.
Coach Jim Leavitt no longer has to convince recruits how good the team is going to be. USF is 7-2, so they can see it for themselves.
Leavitt doesn't have to pitch to high school players how someday the campus will have a state-of-the-art athletic facility. They can watch it go up.
Leavitt doesn't have to tout a distant conference membership. USF begins play in Conference USA next season.
It's all sliding into place.
A bowl appearance, which likely will happen if USF finishes 9-2, would cap a most remarkable rise. Only one item would remain to ensure USF continues capitalizing on its potential: retaining the man most responsible for it.
Leavitt, the only coach in school history, is signed through 2005. But USF's success its first two seasons in Division I-A -- 15-5 with two games remaining -- has exceeded his contract value. He earns a base of $140,000 this season, and his salary will escalate to $220,000 in 2005, well below average for a I-A coach.
In January, after Leavitt interviewed for the more lucrative position at Indiana, USF president Judy Genshaft said Leavitt's contract would be renegotiated. Instead, she did something Leavitt appreciated more: She helped get the athletic facility approved by the board of trustees.
"We needed this (athletic facility) in the worst way," Leavitt said.
He regards his salary as a lower priority. It is counterproductive, however, to pay a prized employee below market value, especially since Leavitt's burgeoning cachet -- he is the driving force who has steered USF from nonexistence to the brink of a bowl game -- soon will attract more enticing suitors than Indiana.
USF athletic director Lee Roy Selmon told the Times he is ready to talk about the contract with Leavitt after the season. A solid bump in pay, enough to show proper appreciation and stave off the deep-pocketed big-conference schools looking for a hot coach, and an extension are in order.
If Leavitt is interviewing again this offseason, then USF football is in trouble. Selmon needs to rework the contract quickly, and let Leavitt and his staff go recruiting -- with shimmering images of the athletic facility in their briefcases.
USF isn't a stop-gap for Leavitt on his way to the big time. It is his baby, his child, and he wants to see it through to maturation. He has said it would take a "no-brainer" for him to leave. But his achievements must be properly recognized -- in his bank account -- for the pieces to continue to slide into place at USF.
UNTOUCHABLES: Only Louisville has gone through a volleyball season unbeaten in C-USA play, and it is one of two teams that can stop USF from matching that feat.
The Bulls, 11-0 in C-USA, 15-1 at home and 25-5 overall, travel to Cincinnati (10-1 C-USA) today and Louisville (10-1 C-USA) Saturday looking to complete a perfect conference season and secure the No. 1 seed for the league tournament beginning Thursday in Chicago.
DRIVE FOR FIVE: The women's cross-country team, coming off a runner-up finish Nov. 2 at the C-USA meet, will try to earn its fifth consecutive NCAA Championships appearance with a top-two finish Saturday at the NCAA Regional in Knoxville, Tenn.
Andrew Smith, who won the C-USA individual title, will lead the USF men's team.
-- Pete Young covers USF sports. He can be reached at (813) 226-3346, or via e-mail at email@example.com .