TAMPA — The University of South Florida's firing of head football coach Jim Leavitt is expected to have some ramifications for USF beyond the gridiron.
Consider the $600 million capital campaign USF launched publicly in October. The USF Foundation had quietly locked in gifts and pledges for more than half the goal. It hoped to raise the rest in three to four years.
But Leavitt's departure may well cause a dip in that campaign, just as similar firings reportedly have led to fundraising hiccups at other universities, USF spokesman Michael Hoad said.
This week, The Chronicle of Higher Education said administrators at Texas Tech University anticipated at least a modest effect on boosters' giving, especially to athletics, in the wake of the firing of football coach Mike Leach.
"There is a dip, and it tends to be recaptured fairly fast," Hoad said. "The reason that it's recouped fairly quickly is that people hire a new head coach and move on. It's not like the typical academic thing where it takes a year to hire somebody. They may have somebody within a very short period of time."
While winning football games energizes some donors, administrators say it has other benefits, too.
USF's director of undergraduate admissions has talked about how a successful football program helps to build USF's brand when it comes to attracting students — not student-athletes, just regular students — especially in the Southeast.
It also raises the university's profile nationally, helps USF coaches in other sports sign players and adds a spark to campus life, officials say. More engaged students are more successful students, they say.
"They enjoy it; it's a connection," said Stuart Silverman, the dean of USF's Honors College.
He would know. Silverman, who has been at USF nearly 40 years, admits to being cynical about football before it came to USF. But he saw how it helped students get excited about USF, and he ended up buying the first batch of body paint for the rowdy group of student fans known as the "Beef Studs."
Many students come to USF because they want a full college experience, he said, and "athletics is a part of that."
Silverman said his staff spent some time Friday talking about Leavitt, but the conversation soon turned to what will happen Monday when students return for the spring semester.
People will talk about Leavitt for a while, he said, then they'll talk about the new coach, then about the Bulls' prospects for next season, then about midterms, then about the basketball team.
Despite football's growing prominence at USF and Leavitt's pioneering role with the program, the decision to fire him was based on clear evidence that he had abused his authority, Hoad said. Both USF president Judy Genshaft and athletic director Doug Woolard "believed in this case the line was crossed," he said.
Genshaft told the Times the decision to fire Leavitt was "very tough," one of her hardest in nearly a decade as USF president.
But, she said, "I have to do what's right for the university."
A leading faculty member said the way Genshaft quickly launched an independent review, then acted on its findings says good things about the role of athletics at USF.
"They clearly say that athletics are a part of the University of South Florida, but they aren't the defining characteristic," said Laurence Branch, who is a distinguished university professor in the College of Public Health, as well as the president of the Faculty Senate and a member of the Board of Trustees. "I'm proud of the way the university has reacted."
Former car dealer Frank Morsani, who with his wife Carol donated $10 million to USF in 2006, part of it for a football practice complex, said he expects any fallout from Leavitt's firing to dissipate soon.
"USF is still on the road to do great things," he said. "These bumps in the road happen."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.