Memory of coach inspires safety

Published September 27, 2006

TAMPA - It is with a heavy heart and a little extra inspiration that USF senior safety Jeremy Burnett will take the field Friday night as the Bulls take on No. 23 Rutgers.

He'll play for the first time since learning that Kamp "Buddy" Rodgers, a close family friend and longtime coach in the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, died Saturday at age 50 after a long battle with lung disease.

Burnett called Rodgers an "uncle," and though the two aren't related, Rodgers had that closeness with hundreds of players he coached since moving to Tampa in 1986.

Rodgers' wife, Anita, said the Burnetts were the first family they befriended when they moved to Tampa. The two families lived nearby with the same number of children, and Burnett's parents, Horace and Bobbie, were married on the same day as the Rodgers.

They've spent the past 20 years watching each other's children grow up. When Rodgers' son, Cameron, signed with Florida Atlantic, Anita remembers how USF coach Jim Leavitt told her husband how sad he was that he wouldn't be at USF.

Burnett, who played for Rodgers in Little League baseball and in youth football, has stepped into a major role as a senior after totaling 12 tackles the past two seasons since transferring from Purdue. In his first four games as the starting strong safety, Burnett has 23 tackles, the most among the Bulls defensive backs.

On Friday, he'll dedicate the game to the man who helped teach him how to play football.

"I want to play for him," Burnett said.

MOVING UP: In USF's first football season in the Big East, there was national skepticism as to whether the league deserved to be among the six conferences whose champions drew automatic BCS bowl berths.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a doubter now, with West Virginia and Louisville ranked in the top 10 and four other Big East teams already beating teams from other BCS conferences.

"ACC, Big East: What's better?" said Leavitt, whose Bulls will travel to face the ACC's North Carolina on Oct. 14. "I don't know, honestly. It's a worthwhile question with all the conferences. I'd say we're definitely part of the BCS group. There's no question about that anymore. You just had to let the league play a year."

The Big East's overall record is 22-8, while the ACC is 28-18, and in head-to-head meetings, the Big East is 4-3 against the ACC this season. Big East teams are undefeated in 13 games against non-BCS conference teams; the ACC is 15-4 in such games.

GOOD LUCK: Rutgers, which has bought billboard space on I-4 in Tampa the past two years, is touting fullback Brian Leonard as a Heisman candidate on the marquee in Times Square. Read more at brianleonard23.com - though he might be the best fullback in college football, 116 rushing yards in four games won't exactly get him back to New York in December. Now in another year or two, teammate Ray Rice 604 yards, nine TDs might have a shot.

THIS AND THAT: Exact times haven't been set, but USF's basketball teams will usher in preseason practice with a "Midnight Madness" gathering at the Sun Dome on Oct. 13. ... Volleyball could get senior setter Juliana Nogueira back this weekend. Nogueira has missed the past three weeks with a hamstring injury, but freshman Brittany Castelamare has played well, ranking fifth in the Big East in assists. ... USF's campus hockey team, the IceBulls, opened its season with an 8-1 win against Rollins College. It will play two games at the St. Pete Times Forum next month, hosting Georgia Tech before a Lightning-Panthers game on Oct. 14, then playing Florida Tech on Oct. 28, the same day the Times Forum hosts a four-team NCAA tournament.

Greg Auman covers USF for the Times. He can be reached at auman@sptimes.com and check out his USF blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.