Coaching stability has been a big factor in Bulls' rise in football ranks.
TAMPA - The major changes happening to South Florida football, notably sharp upgrades in conference affiliation and facilities, have helped elevate recruiting.
The one thing that hasn't been changing, however, also is providing a recruiting edge: the coaching staff.
USF has made no staff changes since before the 2001 season. It is a rare bastion of stability in a high-turnover profession, college coaching.
The Bulls will sign their most highly rated class Wednesday, expected to be among the nation's top 50, perhaps top 35 with a strong finish. Among major factors in USF's burgeoning recruiting clout are the nearly completed, $18-million athletic facility and the impending Big East membership.
Perhaps overlooked is the fact every recruit has dealt with the same USF assistant throughout the recruiting process. Just as every Bulls recruit did last year. And the year before.
"That stability is big," coach Jim Leavitt said. "And our (assistants), so many are Florida people. They're all guys who have spent a lot of time in Florida."
USF recruits know their projected position coach has been the same for several seasons.
Rick Kravitz (defensive coordinator), Earl Lane (defensive line) and Greg Frey (offensive line) are founding fathers who arrived in 1996, a year before USF began playing. For every other coach, 2004 is at least his fourth season.
"Players want to know that the people recruiting them are going to be there," Kravitz said. "We do talk about the stability of the staff, the stability of the head coach with recruits. They know what they're going to get with us."
Pasco High's 6-foot-5 star receiver, Johnny Peyton, is a case in point. He reneged on his commitment to Pittsburgh when a Panthers coach left for another school, and now he is considering USF. Frey is recruiting Peyton, who would play for position coach Tom Pajic, a former 6-5 college receiver who has been on USF's staff four years.
The Bulls also have had the same head coach since Day 1, Leavitt. And unlike the past two offseasons, when he interviewed with Indiana and Alabama, Leavitt finally signed a long-term contract in October (more than doubling his salary). The contract has helped squelch negative recruiting.
"The security of the head coach is big, that and the fact that we've been winning," Leavitt said.
"We're 24-9 in three years in I-A. That's very powerful. That's big."
The Big East and the athletic facility, which is expected to be completed in late April, are proof of USF's ascension. Defensive back D'Juan Brown's career, for example, traces the Bulls' rapid climb.
When USF was recruiting Brown out of Belle Glade Glades Central in the fall of 2000, the Bulls were not a Division I-A team and the athletic facility had not been approved. Brown redshirted in 2001, USF's first I-A season; in 2002, USF was a I-A independent; in 2003 and '04, USF is a member of Conference USA; in a few months Brown will begin working out in a gleaming new facility; and in 2005 he will cap his career by playing for a BCS berth in the Big East.
The impending Big East membership has been a boon. Oral commitments Jariette Buie and Mike Williams of Armwood High, among others, cited USF's Big East move as important in their decision.
"Now that they're in the Big East, that only makes them better," said Buie, who also considered fellow Big East school Pittsburgh.
"We've recruited against a lot of Big East schools," Leavitt said. "The warm weather is big for us. Do you want to be in the Big East north or the Big East south? And we push our academics awfully hard, our status as a Research I university."
USF's elevated status has helped land big-time recruits such as former Dixie Hollins star Andre Hall. Hall is rated the No. 10 junior college player nationally and No. 1 running back by collegefootballnews.com. He was a first-team junior college All-American in 2002 at Georgia Military and last season at Garden City (Kansas) Community College he rushed for 1,488 yards on 258 carries (5.8 avg.) and eight touchdowns in 10 games.
"What USF is doing is very impressive," said Hall, who also had scholarship offers from Nebraska and Texas A&M.
"I haven't seen a school that has anything on USF."