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Leavitt takes heat, fires back

The Bulls score 14 in the fourth quarter, including the winning touchdown with 3:20 remaining.

Published September 17, 2006

ORLANDO - His arms were raised. His eyes were aflame. His teeth were bared.

Jim Leavitt ran from the middle of the field toward his fans, punching the air as if he saw imaginary critics everywhere. He moved back and forth in front of them and pushed his fingers toward the sky, defiant and defensive. He stood there for a long moment, looking something like the Rocky statue, as if the noise could somehow cleanse his wounds.

He has been in his job for more than a decade, but you have never seen Leavitt quite like this. He has celebrated a few victories in his time, and he has been beaten up by a few defeats. At times, he has been effusive, disconsolate, combative, controlling and confounding.

This was different. This time, there was an anger etched onto Leavitt's face. His was the look of a wounded man clawing back at his attackers. His was the voice of a hostile witness enraged to find that his program is on trial.

For a long moment, Leavitt stood in the northeast corner of the Citrus Bowl, allowing his emotions to take control of him rather than the other way around. His face was flushed, and his hair was mussed, and his chin was thrust forward.

Saturday afternoon, it was the perfect snapshot of a game, and a coach, and a program.

Perhaps you might have expected Leavitt to be pleased, since his team had just beaten Central Florida 24-17 in this Lord of the Flies version of a football rivalry. Perhaps you might have expected him to be annoyed, since the Bulls still can't run and suddenly, it appears that Garo Yepremian is in charge of the punting game. Probably, you didn't expect a 13-minute rant in defense of his program.

"Our players have great character," Leavitt said. "Sometimes, they take a lot of hits, which is unfair. It's not right. I guess that's life. I'm tired of people trying to attack our guys. They've got great character. They're good people.

"The way this program has been attacked and ripped, that's been disappointing. And unfairly. It was kind of emotional to me. When things start getting personal and out of whack and not objective, I get real disappointed. It's wrong. But I can't control what people write. I don't have the last ink."

Leavitt has been displeased by several newspaper articles recently. In particular, Leavitt said he was upset by an over-the-top column by Mike Bianchi in Friday's Orlando Sentinel. Bianchi suggested a win by USF would be "a sickening affirmation of everything that is wrong with college football." He suggested Leavitt was "trying his hardest to single-handedly destroy USF's reputation as an institution of higher learning."

Said Leavitt: "We're not a bunch of renegades. That's not us."

Given the ills of college football, frankly, it's hard to put Leavitt in the getaway car with Barry Switzer and Ron Meyer. Then again, it is interesting to note that here, in USF's 10th season, things have changed. The way Leavitt sees the world seems different, and yes, the way the world sees Leavitt.

Leavitt referred to himself as "the most open guy in America" over the last 10 years. He has been different this year, less accommodating, more controlling. His news conferences are faster than a microwave, and you need a stopwatch for some of his answers. His assistants are off-limits. It is as if he spent his summer memorizing Bill Belichick's autobiography. For a coach with a program to sell, it seems a befuddling strategy.

To be fair, the view of the program has changed, too. No one measures the Bulls with a growth chart anymore. No one refers to them as plucky overachievers.

On Saturday afternoon, for instance, the Bulls played the part of the snotty rich kid in the John Hughes teen movie. For years, UCF chased this game, and Leavitt responded by looking down his nose. After all, if you hang out with Muhammad, Jugdish and Sidney, pretty much, you aren't going to get invited to all of the cool parties.

Leavitt suggested no one gave his team much of a shot to win which, of course, is silly. The Bulls were a one-point favorite. Still, with the criticism getting louder, this would have been USF's most disappointing defeat. Worse than Elon, Drake or James Madison. Worse than Alabama, Penn State or Oklahoma.

If nothing else, UCF is a suggestion that the Bulls have lost a bit of momentum the last year. USF cannot run the ball. It cannot kick the ball. It spends an uncomfortable amount of time asking Matt Grothe, a redshirt freshman quarterback, to forgive its other shortcomings.

Yes, all of that reflects upon Leavitt, too. He is awful long in the job to keep talking about how young his team is. Recruiting a player is one thing, and retaining him is another, and a head coach is in charge of both.

Somewhere, even as Leavitt ran toward his fans, a high school tailback was watching. Maybe a linebacker. Maybe a wide receiver.

You wondered what those kids thought of this game. And of this coach. And of this program.

[Last modified September 17, 2006, 01:54:37]

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