Million-dollar Bull

No more rumors.

Coach Jim Leavitt is staying at USF.

Athletic Director Doug Woolard announced Wednesday that the only coach in the football program’s 10-year history received a contract extension for seven years worth $7 million.

Leavitt’s previous contract – which will be replaced on Jan. 1, 2006 – ran through 2009 and was worth $4.3 million over seven years. It also made him one of the lowest-paid coaches at a BCS school. This season, he is in place to earn $542,000.

While Leavitt is 61-37 at USF and has helped the football program climb from the lowly ranks of a small-time program to Division I-A team to a BCS team, he won’t divulge if the Wildcats actually came to him with the position – but is now glad the speculation is over.

“I’m not really going to get into it, but we’re focused on West Virginia,” Leavitt said. “This is about South Florida, and Kansas State goes out and does all their searches, and they are going to go out and do what they need to do.”

The USF football team is Leavitt’s baby, and as he’s said before, he wants to see it continue to grow.

“I love the University of South Florida,” Leavitt said. “I really want to continue to build, and we’ve done some good things, and I want to be competitive. I’m very fortunate to be a coach here. Everyone knows I grew up here, and this community has been the best. We have 70 freshmen and sophomores, and we have to continue to build with them.”

Rumors emerged that Leavitt was the top candidate to replace Kansas State’s Bill Snyder – his mentor and boss when Leavitt was defensive coordinator from 1992-95 – when Snyder announced his retirement on Nov. 15. The departing coach had a 136-68-1 record at Kansas State and a $1.5 million salary for 2005.

But Wednesday, before practice even started, Leavitt told his team, “Just before you read about in the newspapers or hear it on television, I signed a seven-year contract whether you like that or not.”

Leavitt said he was asked a lot about the rumors, but was always truthful with his answers.

“(Players) were asking; a number of people asked (if I was going to stay),” Leavitt said. “But it’s all about trust, and it’s all about honesty.”

Woolard had been working on the contract since Nov. 22 and felt Leavitt would stay with USF.

“This extension reflects the outstanding job that Jim has done in leading our football program,”

Woolard said in a press release. “He has made our program competitive in the Big East Conference and within the BCS, and we feel like the terms of this extension are consistent with his outstanding achievements. Coach Leavitt has an opportunity to build a legacy here at USF, and we are pleased to support him in that endeavor.”

Added Leavitt about Snyder, “He is one of the greatest coaches that has ever coached the game, and whoever (replaces) him is very fortunate (to have the job).”

Starting in the 2006 season, Leavitt’s base salary will jump to $600,000, then rise to approximately $1 million per year. Included in the contract are radio and television incentives, a new buyout clause and a bonus incentive of $75,000 if USF makes a BCS bowl.

But for now, with No. 12 West Virginia coming to town, veteran players – and the younger ones – are happy their coach is staying, and they can move on to what’s important.

“Glad it’s done,” senior defensive end Terrence Royal said. “That way they know he’s committed. That’s what these young dudes like to hear; that way they are able to commit themselves. I’m glad he got that contract extended, and I’m just happy – happy for him.”

Redshirt freshman running back Ricky Ponton agreed.

“It’s a big relief,” the Hillsborough High School graduate said. “He’s a big reason I came (to USF). I’m a firm believer in what he is doing, and he’s taken this team a long way. He’s been here a while, and he knows what he’s doing.”

However, Royal – another local standout player from Wharton High School – was confident Leavitt would not desert his team.

“I already knew he wasn’t leaving, and I asked him myself; he told me no. He’s a man of his word, too,” Royal said. “I’m glad it’s over and we can get back to football.”