TAMPA, Fla. — Jim Leavitt looked at me like I’d just asked him to help me move.
It was a typically sticky August day in 2000. I was a 21-year-old punk writing a freelance story for The Tampa Tribune. He was about to begin his fourth season at the helm of the nascent University of South Florida football program.
I asked him what it said about his program that freshman tight end Mark Feldman had turned down an offer from Virginia Tech, which had played Florida State for the national title eight months earlier, to play for USF, which was weeks away from entering Division I-A as schedule grist for such traditional titans as Kentucky, Baylor and Southern Miss.
“I don’t blame him,” Leavitt spat. “I wouldn’t want to leave the state of Florida. In fact, I’d have been surprised if he went to Virginia Tech. I look at it differently.”
Eight years later, it all makes sense.
Even in 1997, when the first-year Bulls got waxed by Western Kentucky and Elon, Leavitt knew he sat atop a potential goldmine. In 2003, when he and his staff still worked out of trailers and he turned down the Alabama job anyway, Leavitt knew his Bulls were headed to the Big East with almost every possible recruiting advantage necessary to build a juggernaut. Relatively new NFL stadium for a home field? Check. Scads of elite athletes within four hours’ drive? Check. Beaches less than 30 minutes away (depending on traffic)? Check.