Leavitt excited for return to Tampa with 49ers
Former USF coach Jim Leavitt will be back on the sidelines Sunday at Raymond James Stadium for the first time in more than four years, and the 49ers' linebackers coach said he's enjoying the NFL enough not to worry too much about the past or present of Bulls football.
"Honestly, I haven't really thought much about South Florida, the whole drama or anything like that," said Leavitt, who was fired in 2009 after being USF's only football coach for its first 13 seasons, accused of slapping a player during halftime of a game. "You're focused on the 49ers. You don't look back: 'Oh, I wish they were doing better or not better.' I try not to get into that world. That's somebody else's program. I don't have anything to do with it now."
Leavitt got $2.75-million from USF in a settlement after his firing, and he's had a successful three seasons in San Francisco, including a trip to the Super Bowl last year, where the 49ers lost to the Ravens. USF has struggled in the last three years, going from five wins in 2011 to three in 2012 to a surprising 2-10 record this fall under first-year coach Willie Taggart, who may also attend Sunday's game as a close friend of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
Leavitt said he's kept tabs on USF and watched games when his schedule allows -- this year's redshirt seniors were with him for their first season with the Bulls in 2009, and he's kept in touch with players like defensive ends Ryne Giddins and Julius Forte, defensive tackle Luke Sager, safeties Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins and center Austin Reiter, among others.
"I've kind of tried to encourage them a little bit. I know it's been a tough year for them," Leavitt said. "I'm not down there now, so I have no idea. ... I've moved on. The time I had there was really special, was great, I really enjoyed it. I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that I'd have this opportunity. I couldn't have written a better storyline. I always wanted to coach in the NFL."
Leavitt, who graduated from Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg, is excited about coming back to Tampa on a personal level, but more because he'll get to see family members who live locally, with about 25 tickets for relatives and friends attending the game, including his daughter DeAndra, a senior at Northside Christian.
"The neatest thing is just being able to see my family," said Leavitt, whose parents still live in St. Petersburg, with a brother and sister and their families living within two hours of Tampa. "There's all kinds of aunts and uncles, nephews, nieces, the whole deal."
Since moving to California in January 2011, he said he's been back to Tampa once or twice a year. He and his wife Jody have daughters Sofia, 3, and Isabella, who turns 2 in February. His team is almost assuredly headed to the playoffs for the third time in his three seasons, and he said working in the NFL hasn't lost any of its shine for him.
"I really like it a lot. I really enjoy the challenge, the big stage, coaching the very best athletes in the world," Leavitt said. "These guys are so passionate and committed about what they do."
Leavitt works with San Francisco's inside linebackers, including two of the NFL's best in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. The 49ers, coming off a 19-17 win against division leader Seattle, are 9-4 and in good position for a wild-card playoff berth.
"It's been really good. It's such a great group of guys," Leavitt said. "They're really special to me and I think the world of them."
Leavitt had another reunion last week, seeing former Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels, now on the Seahawks' practice squad, as the two teams played in San Francisco. Daniels spent the summer with the 49ers and made the opening-day roster as an undrafted rookie before getting cut in early October.
"It was great, and he did an outstanding job, did everything right," Leavitt said. "He led us to two wins in the preseason. I'm not in that back room as far as why we do this or that, but I think he would have ended up on our practice squad. When he went to waivers, they just grabbed him. I don't blame them. He's got some similarities to (Seahawks QB) Russell Wilson."
Sunday's game will be another Big East reunion -- Leavitt's USF teams took some difficult losses at the hands of Bucs coach Greg Schiano when he was at Rutgers. Schiano faced another old conference rival last week in Syracuse and Buffalo coach Doug Marrone, but Leavitt said he won't spend much time thinking about old rivalries.
"We had a lot more success against Doug Marrone than we did against Greg Schiano," he said of his USF teams. "We certainly had more success against Rich Rodriguez (at West Virginia) than Schiano had against Rich Rodriguez."
Leavitt, 57, said he doesn't know where his coaching path will go next -- he doesn't rule out returning to college football as a head coach with the right situation, though he loves working in the NFL, where offseasons give him more time with his family as well.
"I don't know what the future holds for me," he said. "I've had, just recently again, some chances to go to D-I schools, but I'm not going to leave this unless it's something clearly that I need to do. I don't know if that opportunity will come or not. I'm just enjoying what I'm doing, and you couldn't ask for a better place to live."