Former USF coach Jim Leavitt has become one of UCF’s biggest admirers | Commentary

It’s true.

I swear.

It’s really, really true.

Jim Leavitt, who is historically UCF’s most hated rival, is now one of the Knights’ most vocal admirers.

The man who once tried to keep the Knights down is now actually talking them up.

Leavitt, the former coach of USF, was in Orlando last week and attended UCF’s monumental 45-3 victory over then-15th ranked Oklahoma State. During the game, he tweeted a photo of himself with a buddy (an Oklahoma State) from inside the Bounce House with this caption: “At UCF game. Big 12. It’s sad that USF isn’t at this level. Great atmosphere. UCF did it right. …”

Although Leavitt won’t admit he was rooting for the Knights last week, he does admit that he applauds the hard work, dedication and focus UCF displayed over the years to become a member of a Power 5 conference. When asked if he has become a fan of UCF, Leavitt replied with a chuckle, “I won’t go that far. … My motivation [for attending a game at UCF] was that I just wanted to feel the environment that Central Florida worked so hard to create. They did things the right way to get to the Big 12.”

With Leavitt now retired in his Tampa-St. Petersburg hometown area after a long career that included 14 years as head coach at USF, it was fascinating earlier this week to have a conversation with him and get his historical perspective on the competition between UCF and USF to become a Power 5 program.

Leavitt, an emotional and animated coach, was fired at USF after an investigation in 2010 found he had struck a player in the locker room during halftime of a game. Leavitt claimed he was simply trying to console the player, but USF administrators say Leavitt lied about what happened and tried to get players and coaches to change their story. Leavitt then landed a job as a linebackers coach for Jim Harbaugh’s Super Bowl-bound San Francisco 49ers before returning to college, where he was a highly regarded defensive coordinator at places like Oregon, Colorado and Kansas State.

However, UCF fans will always remember Leavitt as the hated coach of USF when the Bulls beat the Knights regularly and surged ahead of UCF in the race to the big-time. USF won the first four games of the rivalry and was invited to join the Big East in 2005 when the Big East was in the exclusive club of six Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conferences in college football.

The Knights were left with their noses pressed against the glass, and Leavitt and USF eventually dropped UCF from the schedule in 2008 to further separate themselves from their in-state rivals. And to this day, former UCF officials will tell you that ex-USF president Judy Genshaft lobbied hard to keep UCF out of the Big East. Leavitt certainly doesn’t deny that he felt like USF needed to do everything in its power to keep from being associated with UCF.

“I felt like if we continued to play Central Florida, we would eventually get beat because of the [upward] direction they were headed,” Leavitt said. “At the time, it was always Central Florida-South Florida, Central Florida-South Florida, Central Florida-South Florida. We were always aligned together. Well, I did not want to be aligned with Central Florida. It was my vision and my dream back then to accomplish what Central Florida has accomplished today — to be part of a Big Four in the state of Florida.

“I knew we couldn’t align with Florida and Florida State, so I met with Paul Dee [the former AD at Miami] and we established a series with the Hurricanes. I figured if we could beat Miami a few times, we would become part of the state’s Big Four.”

For a brief period, USF seemed to be well on its way. After dismantling UCF 64-12 in 2007, USF was ranked No. 2 in the country before fading down the stretch and ending the season 9-4. Leavitt believes that the 64-12 beating the Knights took that day at the hands of the Bulls was a turning point for UCF’s program.

“In my opinion, that was a huge moment for UCF,” Leavitt said. “I’m sure O’Leary [former UCF coach George O’Leary] had a come-to-Jesus meeting with his team after that loss and they ended up winning their conference. I’ll bet you O’Leary didn’t even have to yell at his team after the game; he probably just told them the truth about where they were and where they needed to be.”

In fact, 2007 was the same year UCF opened its on-campus stadium; a time when the Knights started gaining financial momentum while the Bulls began losing it. Leavitt’s firing in 2010 was obviously a turning point, but the tide already had started shifting.

The Big East, on the verge of going belly-up as a football conference, finally allowed UCF to join in 2011. However, six months later the BCS was scrapped, the College Football Playoff was formed and the restructured and renamed Big East (now the American Athletic Conference) was excluded from the new “Power 5.”

Suddenly, UCF and USF were in the same conference and on a level playing field once again. At that point, it was clear to everyone, including Leavitt, that USF had frittered away its advantage over UCF. When he was still coaching at USF, Leavitt could see UCF had more competent leadership.

Leavitt said he felt like he was banging his head against the wall at USF and, “I had to do everything myself,” after the Bulls fired visionary athletic director Paul Griffin in 2002. Griffin was forced out over accusations that he suppressed an internal investigation of racial discrimination complaints within the women’s basketball program — charges he was eventually cleared of in an independent investigator’s report.

“Paul Griffin was the type of athletic director that UCF ended up getting later in Danny White,” Leavitt said. “It was a profound mistake to get rid of him. If you want to be honest, there would have never even been football at USF without Paul Griffin [starting the program in 2000]. We never had an AD that was even close to Paul Griffin after he was let go.”

Meanwhile, as Leavitt looked 75 miles east on I-4, he saw an administration at UCF that was on a mission.

“Even when I was at South Florida, I could see what was happening at Central Florida,” Leavitt said. “It started with their president at the time [John Hitt]. Their president pushed hard. He had an objective. He knew where he wanted to go and what he needed to get done. Our president [Genshaft] had no idea, no clue about the direction to go or what to do.”

With USF becoming more and more irrelevant and UCF going to three New Year’s Six bowl games in a six-year period, there was no question which program the Big 12 would choose when it decided to expand two years ago.

In fact, Leavitt even recommended the Knights as a Big 12 member to Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt, who was one of the most powerful members of the Big 12 expansion committee.

“Kirby played for me at Kansas State,” Leavitt said. “I told him there was no limit, no ceiling to the potential of Central Florida in the Orlando market and South Florida in the Tampa market. I told him you couldn’t go wrong with either program. But at the time, South Florida was not in the position to even be considered whereas Central Florida was.”

Maybe in a strange roundabout way, Leavitt feels a sense of pride about how far UCF has come.

Maybe this is why Leavitt has become such an admirer of UCF and had this inexplicable desire to attend a football game at the Bounce House last weekend.

And maybe this is why so many UCF fans came up to him at the game, shook his hand and treated him like a long, lost friend instead of a once-hated enemy.

By beating the Knights so badly and motivating them so greatly, maybe Jim Leavitt actually played a part in helping UCF get to where it wanted to go.

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