Super Bowl Q&A with 49ers' Jim Leavitt
Here's something to help get through that long day waiting for the Super Bowl tonight -- even with USF women's and men's basketball going today at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. respectively. We talked extensively with former Bulls coach Jim Leavitt last week as he prepared for the 49ers' trip to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans against the Ravens. Here's what he had to say on a wide variety of subjects ...
Auman: Your background for so long had been entirely at the college level. With just two seasons of working in the NFL, can you appreciate just how much it means to be coaching in a Super Bowl? You're doing something in Year 2 that some coaches go 20 years without doing ...
Leavitt: Some guys never get this chance in life. Most coaches don't ever get the opportunity to coach in a Super Bowl. I know I'm very fortunate, especially doing this in just two years. We lost in overtime in the NFC Championship Game last year and I saw two former players win it (Jason Pierre-Paul & Jacquian Williams). I was very happy for them, sad for me.
This year, I didn't want that to happen again. I hugged (Falcons LB) Stephen Nicholas after the game, just told him how much I loved him. He's such a big player in my life. It was a double-edged sword. I'm happy for us, going to a Super Bowl. In another way, my heart was broken for him. I knew that pain. We had that pain the year before.
The way the game played out, I told (49ers LBs Patrick) Willis and (NaVorro) Bowman at halftime, you can't be great if you can't handle adversity. The way we came out and played defensively in the second half, and our offense just did a great job. You go into an environment like that, as loud as it was, we really had to play if we were going to win. We shut them out in the second half and that was huge.
Auman: Your background in college has been all about teaching kids the game at that level, but with the 49ers, you're working with elite players and trying to somehow make them better. Willis and Bowman finished 1-2 at linebacker in the entire NFL in All-Pro voting. What's the biggest challenge in working with two of the game's best linebackers?
Leavitt: The thing about NaVorro and Pat is they want to be great. Not only are they talented, they want to be great. They're asking questions every day, serious questions. It's a lot more about coverages in the NFL. They're already very motivated. It's been great. People see me getting after somebody, but they don't see the 90 percent of the job that's just teaching and talking. That other part doesn' get displayed. With these guys, very rarely do I raise my voice. I'll say 'We need to do better here. You hear me?' I really enjoy it.
I never really even watched the NFL much. My first year in the NFL, I still watched so much college. This year, I see a transition going on. The pro game is so much more exciting to me than the college game now. If I went back to college, maybe I'd switch back again. You have to be so precise in the NFL. You have to be exact. Every snap is a strain. Every snap, you have to be willing to do the perfect thing to have success.
Most games go down to the last minute. That (NFC Championship) game, I don't know if I've been in such a game. I've been in a lot of games -- we had, what, six overtime games (at USF?) That game, every player on both teams are laying their guts out on every single snap. It's a level that's hard to explain. You have four teams left in the world. Everybody is that focused, everybody is playing with that passion, everybody is that good.
Auman: You came to know the Harbaughs really through Jack first, but talk about Jim and John, the two brothers and the family dynamic you've encountered in your two years with the 49ers.
Leavitt: I've never even met John, so I can't tell you about John. I know Jack because I played him four times (at USF against Western Kentucky, 1997-2000). In fact, I've talked to Jack more since I've been here than I ever did as a head coach. I remember I told him I didn't want to play him anymore. He won the first two, we won the second two.
It's unbelievable. I see it now so much. There are a lot of mannerisms that Jim has that are very similar. The passion for the game, the leaving your emotions out there, to being who you are. What you get is what it is. I see a lot of connection in that family. I'm not going to say it's rare, but it's really something. I can tell the love they have for their dad and their mom is remarkable. That work ethic is really there. To see two Harbaughs in this game, this may never happen again in history. To have a coach in this game is unique.
Auman: Have you coached a game in the Superdome before?
Leavitt: My first game I ever coached in in the NFL, we played New Orleans in New Orleans in a preseason game. And we went to New Orleans this year and beat them. We've been there. In college, I never did. Playing in Atlanta, I knew it'd be loud, but I didn't expect it to be that loud. I don't think it's always loud like that. Those people in that place, it was deafening. You could not hear. I wear the phones on both ears because it's so loud. In college, I always just wore it on one side, and I can always pull them down on my neck. Some of these NFL stadiums, it's so loud, I want both ears covered.
Auman: I'd think if you're a 4-3 defense guy your whole life, moving to a 3-4, it's like changing political parties, or even religions.
Leavitt: Pretty much. When I ran the 3-4, it was called the 5-2. First defense I ever ran was a 4-4, because that's what the head coach wanted at University of Dubuque. Then I went to the 5-2. I knew we had to get out of that at Kansas State, so I went to visit I started meeting with a guy named Pete Fredenburg at Baylor, (Tommy) Tuberville at Miami and Mickey Andrews up at Florida State. Those were the three sources that Bob (Stoops) and I went to. We transitioned to the 4-3, and we had the No. 1 defense, and I was 4-3 all the way until I came here.
Auman: Two seasons in the NFL, two trips to the NFC Championship Game, one trip to the Super Bowl. All-Pros at your position. The NFL's been good to you so far.
Leavitt: I've been spoiled. No question. I had a chance to go coordinate at Kansas State at the same time. I wanted to experience the NFL, and I had so much respect for Jim Harbaugh. In a lot of ways, he's very similar to how I'd do things. That helps. The defensive coordinator (Vic Fangio), he might be the best in the NFL. He's so good.
Auman: USF's new coach Willie Taggart knows the Harbaughs well and has been at some of your recent games, one in San Francisco and then the last game in Atlanta. Have you seen him at all since he got the job?
Leavitt: I saw him in San Francisco and (in Atlanta). Remember, it was crazy. I was hugging every player that was, so it was a melee in that locker room. I've known Willie for years. Willie and I texted every week for two years before he got the job at USF. I know him very well. He will do well, and this is why: The difference between him and Skip, and I have nothing against Skip, believe me, is the passion. Passion, that only people like me understand. You go back to where you grew up to start a program or build a program, Willie has that. When he goes into homes to recruit, he has that passion and that passion is very powerful. They can see the honesty there.
Auman: You've seen the Big East change a lot since you left -- West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse are gone now, and Louisville and Rutgers are on the way out. Do you still recognize the league USF will be playing in?
Leavitt: The schedule's not as tough as what I had. It's going to get weaker and weaker every year. Willie's going to win, because the schedule gets so much weaker. But we never worried about Syracuse before.
Auman: As a Missouri graduate, are you getting used to the idea of your alma mater being an SEC school?
Leavitt: No, I'm not used to that. But I'm not used to Missouri being in the Big 12. I'm a Big 8 guy. I'm not used to Arkansas not being in the SEC and not being in the Southwest Conference. I'm so much in the old school. It's just different now. It's very different. College football's so different, maybe the timing was good for me. I'm really very happy where I am right now.
Auman: Do you have any interest to return to college football? You've talked about how much you've enjoyed the NFL and the success you've had in these first two years.
Leavitt: I would never leave here unless it was a head BCS job, and it'd have to be a special one. That's the only way I would move out of the situation I'm in. I've had offers already, but I'm not going to go unless it's something very special. I'm glad I didn't leave. Look at this!