Leavitt has work to do

As coach Jim Leavitt stood on the pier in St. Petersburg he was all smiles. He was shaking hands, talking to people and getting ready to coach his fourth bowl game in as many years. There was something different about him.

This wasn’t the same guy who ran up and down the sidelines screaming at anybody within earshot during football games. Nor was it the guy who admitted to being the worst interviewee in the Big East Conference earlier this season.

After a season of trying to dodge the media with one-word responses and podium-slapping endings to post-game press conferences, Leavitt looked happy.

In fact, as a St. Petersburg native, Leavitt was happy.

“I don’t want to sound biased, but I really like this situation,” he said.

Why wouldn’t he? His team was about to play what was realistically a home game against a 6-6 Memphis team from a weaker conference (Conference USA).

And, as fate would have it, the Bulls ran away with the St. Petersburg Bowl trophy, finishing the season 8-5 — one game worse than the 9-4 they finished in the previous two seasons.

Leavitt said he liked the St. Petersburg Bowl because everybody wants to play in Florida, and it helps with recruiting.

Well, if Leavitt wants USF to be mentioned in the same breath as Florida, Florida State and Miami — all schools that have won National Championships in the past 10 years — then the Bulls’ first trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl needs to be their last.

The game itself was a snoozer, with USF jumping out to an early lead, then trying to score enough points to make everybody forget that it allowed a Sun Bowl-record 56 points to Oregon last year.

The Bulls — victims of another midseason collapse — had every chance to play in the Orange Bowl. However, they lost three of five conference games by a total of 62 points, including a 33-point loss at home to Rutgers.

Other than the Rutgers game, and a 24-10 loss to Cincinnati on Oct. 30, the Bulls had legitimate opportunities to win three more games. That would not only have given USF its first 10-win season, it would have given the team the opportunity to play in a storied bowl game — not a scrimmage against a weak team 20 minutes from campus.

Leavitt was excited after the game, playfully boasting about USF winning “the inaugural game of two different bowls.”

That’s great, coach, but even though the Bulls won a bowl, nobody seems impressed by a team that finished with a 2-5 record in what was perceived to be a weak conference by “experts” on ESPN before the season started.

Restoring interest in the team and ensuring that the Bulls steer clear of another postseason performance at Tropicana Field starts with recruiting.

Leavitt should be awfully busy this year replacing the talent he will lose. USF is losing two starting linebackers, three safeties, a cornerback and a defensive end — not to mention the potential departure of two-time All-American defensive lineman George Selvie to the NFL draft.

On offense, the Bulls will lose nearly as much. USF was a team built to win now, but it didn’t get the job done. As players got injured throughout the season, it became obvious that depth was a real problem and contributed to the team losing five of its last seven games.

Getting talented players — a lot of talented players — to fill the roster is a must for the Bulls. If Leavitt can’t acquire more than a few talented starters next year, USF will be lucky to make the St. Petersburg Bowl.

With all the new faces, he needs to preach discipline to a program that sorely needs it. The Bulls have finished in the bottom 10 out of 119 teams in Division I football in penalties every year since joining in 1999.

The Bulls also sat three starters — junior corner Jerome Murphy, and seniors Cedric Hill (tight end) and Carlton Williams (safety) for violating team rules before the St. Petersburg Bowl.

If Leavitt’s players aren’t under control on and off the field, it will be hard to keep the Bulls competitive in the Big East.

It could also mean a return to the Rays’ home stadium.