Tuesdays with Leavitt: 'I Won't Be Long'
The real battle of the first week of the season hasn't been at quarterback, where senior Pat Julmiste and redshirt freshman Matt Grothe remain in heated competition, but rather in the wild mess that has emerged between USF coach Jim Leavitt and the media trying to cover his program.
Tuesday marked the first game-week media luncheon of the season, a gathering that typically draws about 20 journalists ranging from local newspapers and TV stations to the two sites that cover USF for the major online recruiting networks. There's rarely more than two print reporters at any given practice, so this is the main interaction Leavitt has with any large number of reporters. There's a short lunch, then Leavitt walks in, sits at a small table and fields questions from the media. I can't remember a time when it ran longer than 10 minutes, but it certainly has never been as laughably short as Tuesday's appearance. To say it was a two-minute interview is kind; this was two weeks of a coach awkwardly struggling to give what would qualify as the bare minimum in media interaction.
Readers of this blog know that Leavitt decided Monday morning to close practice to the media, making his assistants completely off limits and limiting players to interviews during Tuesday's media luncheon. If that seemed like restrictive access from a program that often feels neglected on local sports pages, it's just getting started.
Leavitt prefaced his comments Tuesday by saying he had lost his voice, and in truth, he's been hoarse since before Saturday's Fan Appreciation Day. Still, it's weak to hide behind that when he has microphones in front of him that require little more than a whisper. Here's verbatim what Leavitt had to say ...
Leavitt: "We're anxious to play. We're playing a very good team in McNeese State. We'll have to play awfully well to have a chance to win. They're ranked as one of the best teams in I-AA. They've got a great tradition, they have their entire team back. They're very big, they're very physical, they're very good. Any questions? I'm sorry. I won't be long."
Reporter: "Have you made a decision at quarterback ... "
Leavitt, interrupting: "No."
Reporter: "Are both those kids likely to play quite a bit in the first game?
Leavitt: "I'm unsure."
Reporter: "Coach, you've had some distractions over the past couple of weeks, things you probably wouldn't want to be dealing with this close to a season opener. Have they been distractions? How have you been dealing with it?"
Leavitt: "We've had distractions for 10 years since I was hired. It seems to be we just keep moving forward. (unintelligible). Anything else?"
Reporter: "How important is this for the tradition of this team to win the home opener, to keep that streak going?"
Leavitt: "You always want to win, regardless of who you play. I'm not focused on so much winning as playing good football, seeing if we can play good. We have a pretty young team, a lot of new faces. I just want those guys to go out and play well, play hard. They're going to make mistakes, but hopefully it won't be effort this time."
Reporter: "What have you been most pleased about in camp?"
Leavitt: "The attitude and character of our guys. We have a good group of guys. I really love all the players. Anything else? I'm sorry."
Reporter: "Has Moise (Plancher) made enough strides to fill that void left by Andre Hall?
Leavitt: "How would I know? He hasn't played a snap yet. Andre Hall played a lot of football. We'll have to wait and see. OK? All right. Thank you very much."
That's it. Reporters drove in from Bradenton, from Lakeland, from TV affiliates all over the Tampa area, and they left with a soda, sandwich, potato salad, chips and a cookie. One reference to a single player on his current team, and what did that accomplish? It publicly reminded a redshirt freshman who has to take over for the school's rushing leader that he's never had a college carry. Took the most obvious story that didn't involve the unspeakable quarterback controversy and destroyed it in five seconds. What he's saying is that you can write about USF football if you want, but don't expect his help. Plancher, for the record, was one of a few requested players who showed up for interviews. Neither quarterback came, so the media went directly from Leavitt's quick exit to tight end Devin Gordon, a largely anonymous player (who I'd actually requested for an interview for a story on former walk-ons) who actually stayed at the podium four seconds longer than his head coach. Gordon handled his first interview as well as you could ask. Kudos to Mike Jenkins, George Selvie and Treco Bellamy for showing up as well.
Here's the problem: what's the point of Leavitt making himself the only outlet for information to the media if he's not a source of any meaningful information? What's the point of limiting player interviews to Tuesday lunches if you then limit the players who are actually showing up on Tuesdays? Leavitt funnelling all media interviews to him has a reverse effect: instead of shielding his players from the press, it says he doesn't trust his assistants and players to know how to say the right things to the media. Don't get me wrong -- lots of coaches put a gag on assistants, from Bill Parcells on down. But if you want the best for your staff, if you aspire for them to be head coaches some day, shouldn't they get a little practice at dealing with the reporters they'll be dealing with every day when they get a program of their own? Leavitt is the most recognizable face of USF athletics, and in the first week of football season, he's flagrantly unhelpful to a group of media members, 90 percent of whom have never done anything that could be considered remotely adverse to his program.
If there's one thing I've learned in two years on the beat, it's not to take Leavitt personally. You have to understand that Leavitt has a wide, very general apathy for the media. We as reporters are a distraction, a peripheral aspect of his world that ultimately keeps him from doing things he more closely associates with success. For instance: This time last year, I was reporting a story on Andre Hall and his love of chess -- a story that has nearly zero negative effect on his program from even a paranoid perspective. Leavitt all but declines to comment, even says he'd rather I didn't write the story at all. Again, it's nothing specific to me or that story: he generally doesn't find publicity worth the hassle most of the time.
I've written a ton here on the blog, but you won't find anything in Wednesday's paper about it. At least initially, I don't think it's proper for me to question the way Leavitt handles the media in the newspaper, simply because I'm a little too involved. You could argue it's just a matter of semantics, but I'm telling a couple hundred people here as opposed to a couple hundred thousand in the paper. There's a compelling argument to be made for how the other paper has handled it as well.
I should point out also that I didn't ask Leavitt a question during Tuesday's luncheon, when perhaps I could have tossed in an easy one or two with the hope of jump-starting him into relevant conversation. I knew I was getting him Tuesday night after practice, and I typically don't ask questions during the main news conference, simply because I talk to Leavitt a half-dozen times a week, and half the time, I know the kinds of answers he'll give with cameras in front of him.
After Tuesday's practice, Leavitt was barely better than his morning showing. He'll talk after practice, you see, but he won't discuss injuries, won't discuss eligibility, won't talk depth chart. What's left? I asked him Monday when his weekly radio show would be, and he said he honestly didn't know. (Again, I believe him wholeheartedly; the show is one big interview, if only a controlled one.)
The last two days can only be so surprising. Leavitt cut his media day short by a half-hour a few weeks ago; and while he's actually been in a talkative mood in the past two weeks, those times didn't have the immediate pressure of a game looming just days away and the recent sting of negative press in the papers over the weekend.
These short interviews do make it easy to transcribe, so here's Tuesday night's interview, also in its entirety. My personal goal was to stretch it to over a minute, and it almost went 90 seconds, a relative three-act play by recent standards. Everybody wanting my job this week, line up single file ...
Me: "How'd it go?" Leavitt: "Good."
Me: "Good practice?" Leavitt: "Yeah."
Trib's Gregg Becnel: "Have you made a decision on Thed (Watson) or Tavarious (Robinson)?"
Leavitt: "No. We're focused on practice."
Me: "Everybody healthy?
Leavitt: "I think so."
Me: "You're not going to say anything about injuries?"
Leavitt: "I wouldn't if anybody was hurt."
Becnel: "Is Danny Tolley able to play?"
Leavitt: "Again, what'd you just ask? I'm not going to say anything about injuries. And what do you ask?"
Becnel: "I didn't ask about injuries. I said "Is he able to play?" Is Keeley Dorsey cleared yet?"
Leavitt: "I'm not talking about Keeley Dorsey. I'm not talking about clearinghouse."
Me: "Anything stand out to you today?"
Leavitt: "Well, the guys are working hard. They've been a good group."
Me: "In terms of you tapering things off ..."
Leavitt, interrupting: "I need to tomorrow. But we're going to get weather tomorrow, so I don't know how much we'll go."
Me: "Did you do anything extra today, seeing that coming at all?"
Leavitt: "We practiced a pretty good ways."
Me: "Would you go indoors, do anything different if the (weather)'s bad tomorrow?"
Leavitt: "We'll have to wait and see. I don't know."
Me: "You see the new football deal, the TV deal with ESPN?"
Me: "You look over it at all, see anything impressive?"
Leavitt: "I knew about it about a month ago. It's a pretty powerful deal."
Me: "For the school, good for exposure?"
So there you have it. In summary: Yeah. Good. I'm unsure.
Wow. I've written too much tonight. That quote in the headline is from Leavitt, not from me ...