By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
South Florida is hoping its new digs, an $18-million, state-of-the-art athletic facility, results in a recruiting windfall.
TAMPA - It is the most anticipated part in a football recruit's official campus visit, that pivotal moment when a young man sits down for that one-on-one, face-to-face interview with the head coach.
And for years, Jim Leavitt had to pull it off ... in hotel rooms.
"We never had a building, so we would just meet them at their hotel," recalls the ninth-year Bulls coach, who used a trailer for an office for most of his tenure at USF. "You wonder how we ever did it before. How many major college programs have a head coach meeting kids in hotel rooms? None that I know of."
This weekend, when Leavitt looks some of USF's biggest recruits in the eye and tries to persuade them to become Bulls, he won't have to worry about housekeeping knocking mid speech. For years, he landed recruits by telling them his dreams, by sketching out his grand ideas for USF's future. Now he'll entertain them in a posh corner office that realizes one of those dreams.
"We had to sell a vision," Leavitt said. "But selling a dream can only take you so far. You have to have a manifestation of that dream."
Now USF has an $18-million, 103,000-square foot manifestation to show how far the Bulls have come since they played their first football game in 1997. The state-of-the-art Athletic Training Facility, which opened last summer just north of the Sun Dome, is what Leavitt calls "the last cog" in completing USF's recruiting pitch. The Bulls have Tampa's sunny climate, the chance to play home games in an NFL stadium, and an exciting future in the Big East in the fall. But now they have a building to bring it all together.
"It has been the final piece to solidify the foundation we've been building for nine years," said Leavitt, who will host about 20 coveted recruits starting today in the biggest weekend for the Bulls between now and national signing day on Feb. 2.
Facilities, once a Bulls weakness exploited by recruiting rivals, are now a strength, something enabling USF to contend for athletes once beyond their reach.
"We were just getting hammered by competitors," former athletic director Lee Roy Selmon said. "They have their own sly way of bringing that up. "Oh, USF, they get that building yet?' "
A year ago, Leavitt would show recruits the construction site, donning hard hats and walking in the dirt. Last weekend was USF's first for official visits for football recruits, and Leavitt was struck by the sheer novelty of having a facility to tour.
"It's unusual," he said. "All you do is walk and talk and look."
A one-paragraph condensed version of the facilities tour: the building has everything from locker rooms for nine USF teams, including football, to a 10,900-square-foot weight room, literally five times the acreage of its predecessor. The sports medicine clinic is housed on the first floor, as well as a huge vault for equipment in all sports. The second floor has offices for coaches and USF's athletic administration, as well as an academic center for studying and tutoring.
"What USF has is comparable with the best facilities in their new conference, if not the country," said Kevin O'Malley, a consultant to the Big East who lives in Palm Harbor and has visited all the Big East facilities. "I think it matches up well with just about anybody. I can see USF beginning to fulfill its potential as a major college presence in the Tampa Bay area."
The size of the facility is a draw, but USF is as proud of the detail, with no expense spared. The wood chairs in the Big East Conference room have USF's new logo etched in their backs, and the equipment area has a room designated specifically for re-painting football helmets, with appropriate venting installed. The equipment has rows of hundreds of upright plastic tubes that can blow hot air, and on rainy days, football cleats are hung to dry, prolonging the life of the shoes. The football meeting room, which has adjustable walls to quickly transition from one large room to eight smaller rooms for film review by position, is set up with swivel chairs, all spring-loaded to face in the same direction.
"The meeting room was the coolest thing, with the position meetings with video projected up on the walls," said Matt Grothe, a quarterback from Lake Gibson who has orally committed to sign with USF. "It's got everything. I've been to FSU and Florida, and it's right there with them. It's really nice, and it's something we definitely need."
Athletic director Doug Woolard unveiled this week a vision of USF's future that would surround the facility with new and upgraded stadiums and fields, as well as renovations to the Sun Dome. His message was that this facility, as groundbreaking as it is for the Bulls, is only the beginning.
And the Bulls aren't the only state football program busy improving its infrastructure. Florida State, Florida and Miami are upgrading their facilities, and UCF introduced a new building in 2003 and is close to finishing the state's only indoor practice facility.
"It's like an arms race between the schools," said Armwood High coach Sean Callahan, who has running back Demetrius McCray visiting USF this weekend.
Whether the addition of the facility is enough to lure recruits such as McCray remains to be seen. This weekend's visitors include five players from Miami's Norland High, including coveted defensive end Richard Gordon. The facility and the move to the Big East could be enough to give the Bulls their best class ever.
"They've gone from nothing to where they are in an amazing amount of time," said Jamie Newberg, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com and a USF grad who lives in St. Petersburg. "We always ask kids what they look for, and playing time is the ultimate answer, but facilities is always right in there. Schools are trying to outdo each other, but USF is working hard to get on par with the schools they're competing against."
In the brochure seeking donations from boosters for the facility, Selmon explained the need for the upgrade: "If we want to be the best, we must be able to provide the best." Paying for the $18-million facility is a combination of philanthropy and other revenues, including a $1-per-credit hour activities fee paid by USF's Tampa students.
"It's something we all take great pride in," Selmon said this week. "The future student athletes, we want them to have something a little better than we had. ... Every now and then we see a former student athlete come by, and they're like "Wow.' I say I'm sorry it wasn't here when they were here, but they know they've been an integral part of the foundations that have been laid here."