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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Let others be giddy. USF's Jim Leavitt has little time for it.
By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
Published October 3, 2007
TAMPA - Upon the face of unbridled joy, there are worry lines.
The eyes are narrow.
The lips are tight.
The jaw is set.
The brows are so thoroughly furrowed it seems as if they are being aimed at you.
Happy guy, Jim Leavitt.
If things get any better, he might just smile.
Then again, maybe not. Here it is, the time of his life, and darned if Leavitt is going to let anyone see him having it.
He keeps his voice flat. He makes sure his words are bland. Even here, even in the confines of his office, he does not allow time for emotions.
Outside, there is a party going on. His program is no older than a fifth-grader, and already, it seems to lead the nation in captured fancy. USF is the talk of Tampa Bay, the new toy of the football polls and the feel-good story of college football. The Bulls are ranked No.6 in the nation - an improbable, dizzying ranking - and already, you can hear the chatter of major bowl invitations, of Big East championships, even of national title games.
As for Leavitt, he is very impressed with Florida Atlantic, juggernaut.
On Tuesday morning, a million miles away from the trailer where he used to work, Leavitt sat in his plush office. There was a jug of orange juice at his left hand to try to beat back his relentless cough. Ahead of him, on a large-screen television, a game tape was frozen with FAU in punt formation. In his ear, there was a telephone.
Once again, America was calling. This time, Leavitt was on hold, waiting to appear on the Jim Rome Show. Already this week, he has been on ESPN's First Take and on Gameday. Perhaps later, he will be on Leno. Who knows? Bruce Springsteen has a new CD out. Maybe Leavitt will turn up in a video.
The thing is, Leavitt doesn't appear particularly giddy about the sudden interest in his availability, either. There are people who line up hours to call into Rome's show, but judging from the look on Leavitt's face as he waited, he would just as soon you drop a radio on his head.
"I appreciate it, I really do," Leavitt said. "But I'm not someone who seeks that stuff out. I'm not exactly a media guy."
At this point, though, wouldn't you expect Leavitt to enjoy the ride a bit more than appearances suggest? No one expects him to visit Matt Grothe's barber and get a Mohawk of his own. But when a man builds a skyscraper, shouldn't he take time to enjoy the view?
So, Jim, are you having fun?
"Ah, I wouldn't say 'fun,' exactly," Leavitt said. "I'm happy when the kids play hard."
Oh, come on. At a time such as this, shouldn't a coach take a moment to savor the feeling?
"He probably should," Leavitt said, "but I don't know that I will. I just can't let myself think about it. We have a game coming up, and I expect it to come down to the final play."
Okay, okay. If you press him, Leavitt will admit that deep down, where the microphones do not reach, he is having a good time. He enjoys the little exchanges with his players during practices. He loves the big plays during games. He felt the same charge as everyone else over the wild crowd on Friday night. Even on the sideline, it is possible to smell the flowers.
It's just that, for the outside world, Leavitt continues to wear the face of a witness during cross-examination.
"I'm guarded," Leavitt said. "I'm sure people don't think I'm having any fun."
Part of it, Leavitt says, is because he is a head coach. When he was an assistant at Kansas State, he and Bob Stoops, now the Oklahoma coach, used to go out to celebrate big victories. The way Leavitt remembers it, he was good at it.
"I can be a nut," Leavitt said. "I can celebrate with the best of them."
After Friday night's victory over West Virginia, on the other hand, Leavitt went home. He and his wife watched a replay of the game on television. He tried to go to bed at 5 a.m. It didn't take. Finally, he went to sleep at 6:30 a.m. You know: Happy hour.
"I don't know how Coach Leavitt celebrates," Grothe said. "Maybe he has a Pepsi and a doughnut."
"When he's home by himself, who knows?" Walt Walker said. "Maybe he dances half-naked around the house. He dances after we win games. It's great to see. I think he could probably get a job in a Vegas show."
Why is Leavitt guarded? He talks about how some statements can be taken wrong. He talks about how much he enjoys the news conferences where Bill Belichick of the Patriots says nothing.
Leavitt stood and walked around his desk. He sifted through the clutter, reaching underneath a scouting report on FAU, until he found a particular newspaper article.
Want to talk about Leavitt's face?
All of a sudden, there were veins jutting out of it.
A columnist in Monday's Birmingham News suggested that USF was a program built on players who weren't academically good enough to get into other schools. Alabama coach Nick Saban was quoted as saying that six players were at USF because Florida or FSU couldn't take them.
"It's totally untrue," Leavitt said, his voice rising. "How can someone make a statement like that? Out of 110 players, we have two nonqualifiers. Only one of them is starting, and both are going to graduate. Now, everyone in Alabama is going to believe this nonsense. What a slam that it is on our program."
In that moment, fueled by his anger, Leavitt let his guard down. It was there, with his players attacked, that you could see Leavitt's passion up close.
And really, this is who Leavitt is. Yes, he has affection for his team. Yes, he is proud of what it has accomplished.
Down deep, this is Leavitt's nature. During the week, he doesn't play the game very well. He doesn't show his joy nearly enough, and he could do a better job of publicly embracing the accomplishments along the way. Give him a cause, however, and Leavitt is willing to go at it.
More than anything, it is that intensity that has driven USF this far this fast. It is the reason USF has grown up. It is the reason for all the chatter.
Saturday, Leavitt will lead the Bulls one more time. You know, for the fun of it.