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Be true to your school

If you don’t know yet, let this be a wake-up call — Jim Leavitt can flat-out coach.

He might even be better than most people think. But there was a time when no one, except USF, would even give the man a clipboard.

“No one else really gave me a chance to coach Division I football starting out,” Leavitt said. “USF did.”

In his first three years as a Division I-A head coach, Leavitt has amassed a better record (24-9) than either of his notoriously famous Florida counterparts — FSU’s Bobby Bowden, at 23-10, and UF’s Steve Spurrier, at 20-13-1 — during that same span. And to think, only USF saw his potential as a coach.

That belief in him has simmered into a boiling loyalty for Leavitt, who in 2002 turned down interest from major schools (including Alabama) to re-sign with the Bulls and then extend that deal into a $4.35-million contract good until the 2009 season.

“It has been a two-end street,” Leavitt said. “I’m a loyal guy, and I’m loyal to the school for what they did for me.”

Now, with USF on the verge of a jump to the Big East, the Bulls are slowly creeping into the hallowed Florida football spotlight reserved for many years for only Miami, Florida and Florida State. Leavitt knows the Bulls need to keep running, though, if they are to catch up with the other Sunshine State squads.

“We are kind of the new kid on the block,” Leavitt said. “Although we definitely have a ways to go, making our mark is exciting.”

Making a mark can be a hard process if you’re constantly denied the branding iron. The Bulls’ first two seasons in Division I-A resulted in 8-3 and 9-2 records, respectively.

However, both years the Bulls were not afforded bowl bids, losing out on postseason play to teams they defeated during the season.

It was a tough pill to swallow for the players and their coach, who told local media that he would run naked through the streets of Tampa if that were what it would take.

“I made that statement then because I really felt we had a deserving team that year,” Leavitt said. “But it’s part of the process and we can’t control that part. I’m not sure I’d say that statement again now, but we’ll just have to see how this (year’s) team does.”

This year’s team, which looked promising after fruitful spring practices, is now a bit in doubt thanks to a few off-the-field problems.

A few players have left the team on their own (quarterback Evan Kraky, defensive back Kenny Robinson), while a few other players’ futures have been put in doubt thanks to trouble with the law (the much-publicized Brian Fisher child-support saga and Thursday night’s arrests of Devon Davis, Curtis Chance and Dorrean James for posession of marijuana in Ybor).

“If you look at other schools across the country, we’ve been so good about this stuff it’s remarkable,” Leavitt said. “There have been a couple things this summer but not any different than years past. This summer’s problems are getting resolved quickly.”

USF is in the Florida football spotlight, propelled by good and bad frenzies in the media, a rising level of on-the-field performance and, maybe most importantly, by a good coach.

Leavitt has the task of holding this program together as it pushes for the big time, supported by the same loyal bond that brought him success to begin with.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to coach here,” Leavitt said. “I’m very fortunate for being able to help this program and that’s all there is to it. People understand what this program is about, and the outlook is pretty good.”