Leavitt going green and gold for basketball

Whether he’s sprinting out of the tunnel before a game or throwing a tirade on the sideline, it’s hard to miss USF football coach Jim Leavitt on the field.

But with a month until the Bulls’ bowl game, the next Leavitt sighting will be Saturday night at the Sun Dome, where he’ll paint his body green and gold during halftime at the men’s basketball game against the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

It all started when USF student Kyle Fanning watched a video interview on usforacle.com in which Leavitt gave praise to the student section after the Bulls’ win against then-No. 5 West Virginia on Sept. 28.

“To come out and see the end zone right down here and how loud they were was unbelievable. I wish I could be in one of those – you know those rock concerts where the guy jumps out in the middle of them and they all pass you around the stands?” Leavitt said after the game. “I just love our students and we couldn’t do it without you.

“Seeing people in the tents (waiting for tickets) getting ready for the game and then seeing the emotion and the body painting – I need to get my body painted green and gold one of these times and do that.”

After seeing the interview, Fanning decided to try to have the 11-year coach make good on his word, so he went to the one person who has impacted Leavitt the most this season – Jeff Wagner, the USF graduate who has inspired the football team while battling leukemia.

“I said ‘Hey, this looks like a good idea. What do you think?'” Wagner said to Leavitt at a practice following the win against the Mountaineers. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, I said that, yeah, I guess I did say that.’ So that’s kind of how it got started. We just didn’t know when or where or how.”

Once Wagner got Leavitt to agree to the plan, he went to the Bulls’ marketing department and suggested that the event take place as part of a Finish Strong Celebration in which the football team will be honored during halftime at the basketball game Saturday.

Leavitt, with coaches and players at his side, will address the crowd before getting his body painted and watching the second half of the game from the student section.

“He has so much passion and pride that I really had the faith that he would do this, and it was no problem when he realized how much of an opportunity this would be,” said Wagner, who will also be part of the festivities. “Heck, I think it’s even going to be one of his greatest recruiting trips, so to speak, with what people are going to see.”

Leavitt’s decision to follow through on his word was greatly impacted by his relationship with Wagner, but the 8,000 or so fans who filled up the north end zone at every home game were also a factor.

“The main reason I’m doing it is, of course, (because) Jeff Wagner has worked me a little bit, but it wasn’t just Jeff Wagner,” Leavitt said. “I really believe our students are the very best. The support that we’ve received this year – and throughout all the years I’ve been here – from our student body is way beyond expectations, and I think it’ll just be a lot of fun.”

Fanning didn’t expect Leavitt to paint himself until the Bulls’ regular football season ended, but he was confident that, with Wagner’s help, Leavitt could be convinced to do it at some point during basketball season.

“I just thought, ‘Man, that’s great to have a coach that can get so wild and passionate about our fans,’ and then I thought, ‘Hey, maybe he’ll actually do this,'” said Fanning, who graduates later this month. “I figured he’s a man of his word. He’s got a real good (reputation) around here, so I knew he’d do it.”

Wagner’s “Finish Strong” mantra has motivated the Bulls since their victory at Auburn in the second week of the season. Shortly after the upset of the Tigers, Leavitt ordered wristbands with the inspirational phrase on them.

The wristbands had only been available to members of the football team and a select number of people to whom Wagner gave them. However, 3,000 have been donated for fans attending Saturday’s game.

Along with celebrating USF’s berth in the Brut Sun Bowl on Dec. 31, Wagner and Fanning hope to help give the basketball team a home-court advantage similar to what the football team had all season. And after averaging just 3,547 fans in his first three home games as USF’s basketball coach, Stan Heath welcomes the opportunity to get more fans in the seats.

“I think (Leavitt painting himself) will be something that’ll hopefully fire up our stands,” Heath said following a win against UCF on Saturday. “We’re getting better and better at that area, but with the football team and their success I think Jim’s going to light a fire in the Sun Dome.

“He’s a very popular person, and I think if any of our students or any of our fans know that he’s coming to the game and he’s on the bandwagon, (then they know) we need some more people just like that to come on board.”