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USF continues to rise in eyes of its recruits

Wins and C-USA are some reasons the Bulls are getting better players.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003

TAMPA -- Like many born and raised in the Tampa Bay area, South Florida coach Jim Leavitt yearned to be in San Diego for the Super Bowl.

Two of his players with siblings in the game, Cedric King and Santiago Gramatica, were there. One of his former players, long-snapper Ryan Benjamin, is a Buccaneer. Several cronies were there, too.

"I could not believe how many calls I was getting during the game from people in the stadium," Leavitt said. "Why aren't you here? I can't believe you're not here. I can't believe you're missing it."'

Leavitt had plenty of ticket connections. Yet he stayed in Florida.

To recruit.

"I would have loved to have been there," he said. "But it's a critical time for us for recruiting."

The Super Bowl or more super recruits? Leavitt chose the latter, and his efforts will be rewarded Wednesday, the first day players may sign.

"South Florida is on the verge of having its best recruiting class," Orlando Sentinel recruiting analyst Bill Buchalter said.

The Bulls have jumped to another recruiting level for four primary reasons:

Success -- USF is 17-5 the past two seasons in Division I-A.

Conference USA -- The Bulls begin play in the league this season.

The athletic facility -- The long-awaited $15-million to 18-million complex will be completed in about a year.

Coaching continuity -- Leavitt, entering his seventh season, spurned an advance from Alabama to sign a five-year deal with USF in December.

"This year, clearly, we're visiting with more top players than in the past," Leavitt said. "Now we'll lose some we want, and we'll get some we don't expect to, like always. But things have changed.

"Going into Conference USA and the new athletic facility are huge factors. And stability in coaching, I've been here a while. And I'm staying here, and our coaches have been here. Plus we're 17-5 the past two years Division I-A. We've beaten at least four bowl teams. Things are getting better and better."

If Leavitt sounds like a salesman, it's because that's what recruiting is -- selling your program to recruits.

"Jim Leavitt and his staff have always been very aggressive, and as they've become more established now, they're winning more battles," analyst Jeremy Crabtree said. "The longer you're there, the more high school coaches know who you are, the more familiarity there is. Now they're seeing the fruits of their labor."

USF has developed strong ties to some of the state's most successful high school coaches. South Sumter's Inman Sherman, Lake City Columbia's Danny Green and Hillsborough's Earl Garcia have extolled the virtues of USF. All have players at USF and more slated to sign Wednesday. Florida's fertile recruiting base and the talent in the Tampa Bay area during recent seasons also are beneficial. All of USF's commitments are from Florida, and about half are from Hillsborough or a bordering county.

"Jim Leavitt, I don't think he meant to do it, but he has created the state of Tampa Bay in recruiting, similar to what Howard Schnellenberger did with the state of Miami (at Miami during the late 1970s, early '80s)," Buchalter said.

"He is keeping many of the best players in the area home. Obviously, he's not getting them all. But he has made a big statement this year with eight or nine of the best players from Hillsborough and its contiguous counties."

Added Crabtree: "They might not be beating out Florida State, Florida and Miami with regularity, but they're able to beat a lot of the out-of-state schools from major conferences, like Iowa or Clemson, and keep those kids home."

Crabtree, who compares USF's emerging status in Florida with Fresno State in California, cited Clearwater Central Catholic safety LeRue Rumph as a prime example of the Bulls' newfound recruiting muscle. Rumph is rated a four-star recruit by and the nation's No. 7 safety by, and USF is going down to the wire with North Carolina State to sign him.

Columbia defensive end Eric Thomas is another example. He had scholarship offers from Tennessee and Clemson, but when Florida and Florida State showed only lukewarm interest, he committed to USF, just after teammates Cliff Magby and Allen Cray.

Leavitt missed the Super Bowl, but he hopes to benefit from it.

"Hopefully, the Bucs will help us," Leavitt said. "Come to Tampa, and you win football games. Winning is conducive."

So is recruiting.

"If I could do what I wanted to, I would have (gone to the Super Bowl)," Leavitt said. "To see Ryan Benjamin ... I would have wanted to see that.

"But I was recruiting."

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