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Today, Leavitt's past looms in distance
USF's coach learned a lot not far from where the Bulls play today.
By GREG AUMAN
Published September 23, 2006
The visiting sideline at Kansas' Memorial Stadium is a familiar place for Jim Leavitt.
As a defensive back at Missouri, he played his final college game at Kansas in 1977, losing 24-22. He returned to Lawrence four times as an assistant, and he'll be there as a head coach tonight for USF's kickoff at 7 with the Jayhawks.
But for Leavitt to truly come back to Kansas, he would have to drive 85 miles west on Interstate 70 to Manhattan, home of Kansas State, where Leavitt coached from 1990-95.
If there's a model for what Leavitt has built in a decade at USF, it's there, and many see a lot of longtime Wildcats coach Bill Snyder in Leavitt.
"Jim really has tried to emulate Coach Snyder, as much as anybody that came out of that tree," said former Houston and Wyoming coach Dana Dimel, who coached under Snyder from 1987-96.
"We were a bunch of young guys that just fed off each other. Iron sharpens iron, and all of us got opportunities because of our success there."
Leavitt started USF from scratch, but Snyder might have had a greater challenge when he came to Kansas State in 1989. The Wildcats were 3-40-1 in the previous four seasons, and went 1-10 in his first year. From there, he won at least five games for 14 years in a row, and at least nine every season from 1993 to 2000.
"He had a vision for Kansas State and he never wavered, whether people agreed with him or not," said Leavitt, in his 10th season at USF and, at 49, the same age Snyder was when he took over in Manhattan. "He stayed true to the course. His whole world was that program, though he probably would tell you that was a mistake in his life.
"That's why I'm so emotional about this; it's my whole life. I want this program to be established."
Snyder has had 11 assistants go on to be college head coaches, including Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Arizona's Mike Stoops and Leavitt's foe tonight, Kansas' Mark Mangino. He remains close to Leavitt, and sees little change from the intense graduate assistant he met on Hayden Fry's staff at Iowa in 1989.
"He's wired different than most people, like he's walking around with his finger in a light socket," said Snyder, half-kidding when he says Leavitt's secret was drinking half a case of Pepsi a day.
"He's a big soda-pop drinker," Snyder said, and days later, unsolicited in a separate interview, Bob Stoops, a close friend of Leavitt's since their K-State days, suggests it was a full case a day.
"I drink a lot of Pepsi," Leavitt admits. "I have two full liters in the icebox right now."
Other things stood out about Leavitt besides his, well, carbonation. Like Snyder, he was humble and deflected praise, a tireless worker who set the standard on a staff where assistants stayed past midnight most nights.
"When I'd walk down the hall to finally go home, his would be the one light that would still be on," Snyder said.
When Leavitt left for USF, he worked 21 months before the Bulls' first game, calling K-State's football office constantly. Can you send the old practice schedule? Exactly how big are the meeting rooms? Snyder said Leavitt kept his secretary busier than his own staff did, and Leavitt doesn't argue.
"I called her a lot," he said. "I had her send me everything. Everything from A to Z, how to run things, practice schedules."
Of all the details he got from Snyder, the most important might have been how to handle the chaos that comes with a new program.
"He's got his finger in every detail. He's actively involved in virtually everything about his team," Snyder said. "But I think Jim had an understanding that every day brings a new set of problems. You have to understand there is a solution, and you just solve them as rapidly as you can."
While Leavitt has a profound respect for Snyder, he doesn't think of himself as being like him as a coach. Snyder came from the offensive side of the ball, Leavitt on defense; when Snyder left the office at midnight, he still had his tie on.
"We're not very similar. I wear my emotions on my sleeve a lot more than he does. And you'd never see Coach Snyder like this," said Leavitt, barefoot outside his office on a Sunday morning, wearing a Super Bowl T-shirt and sweat shorts, rubbing his eyes from another long night of watching game tapes after a win against Central Florida last week.
The dedication to football has kept Leavitt from other important things in life. Just as Snyder's first marriage, with three children, ended in 1979, Leavitt and his wife, Denise, divorced in 2002 after 22 years of marriage.
Aware of his role as a mentor, Leavitt said he wants his assistants to emultae his work ethic, but not at the expense of everything else.
"I hope they spend more time with their families," Leavitt said. "I hope they're not like me. I don't want them to be like me."
As much as K-State helped create the success Leavitt has found at USF, the Wildcats nearly took him away last year, offering him a lucrative contract to succeed his mentor after Snyder announced his retirement.
Their pursuit came during USF's 2005 season, reminding Snyder of how the Wildcats approached him during his final season at Iowa.
"When I visited with him, he said, 'I can't think about anything but what we're doing right now,' " Snyder said. "That's exactly what happened with me, but they couldn't find anyone else and hired me after the season. It's a tribute to his loyalty, and I admired that."
K-State was more tempting than previous offers to leave Tampa because of his personal connection there. In the end, close ties at USF, in the area where he grew up, the place he calls home, were stronger.
"It was hard not to go back to Kansas State because of the people," Leavitt said. "The people of Manhattan were great. Very special, and that's what made it very hard. It's what I love about here. The university is one thing, but it's the people."