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Coach Jim Leavitt has to take blame for USF's annual late-season collapse

TAMPA — Here in mid plummet, one does not stop to admire the view. Certainly, one does not pause to pat himself on the back for climbing so high before gravity took over.

It is a helpless feeling, this annual free fall by USF. It does not matter how many times you swear out loud, and it does not matter how fast you flap your arms. You are powerless. You are out of control. And the worst part is how familiar it all feels.

For that, you can blame Jim Leavitt.

Dang him. He made you want more.

It is because of Leavitt there are so many expectations around the USF program, and it is because of Leavitt the Bulls, once again, will not meet them. It is because of Leavitt the Bulls have achieved so quickly, and it is because of Leavitt that recent teams have not achieved enough. It is because of Leavitt that so much praise has been thrown at the program, and whatever blame there is to pass around these days, that is because of Leavitt, too.

Such is the job description of a head coach. He is responsible. He is the one to blame. It does not matter if the coach is Bill Belichick of the Patriots or Bobby Bowden of FSU or Pete Carroll of USC.

And so we have reached the portion of the program where the fans have begun to grumble over Leavitt. Remember those twisted, agonized faces Leavitt makes on the sideline? These days, USF fans are making the same faces. There is a Web site demanding a new coach. There are blogs so vicious that viruses die upon approach. Around here, the discontent has never been so wide, and never so loud.

Is it fair? Of course it's fair. If you are going to praise a coach for each step forward — and, for years, most columns about Leavitt have read like love songs — then who can blame anyone for suggesting that Leavitt has something to do with a third straight late-season swoon?

"To be honest with you, I don't hear it,'' Leavitt said Tuesday. "I don't read the paper. I don't listen to the radio. I don't follow the blogs.

"If you lose, you always feel like it's your fault. I put it on myself. I always feel like it's the head coach's program. If the offense isn't playing well, that's me. I've got to make sure the offense plays better.''

In some ways, maybe the criticism means the USF program is all grown up. For years, the Bulls were a precocious program you wanted to pat on the head for trying. No more. Fans expect to be higher in the polls and bigger in the bowls.

Now, let's get this straight. No one should be calling for Leavitt's head, least of all those fans — and you've seen them, too — who don't seem to know if the ball is blown up with air or stuffed with feathers. If there is a reason the last couple of seasons feel so disappointing, it is because Leavitt has allowed fans to believe that better seasons are possible.

Ask yourself this: What are the odds of USF hiring a better coach than Leavitt? And what are the odds of it hiring a worse one?

That said, some criticism is due. Fact is, this story is getting kind of old. It's like watching a sequel to a horror movie. You know, the one where the kids go to the lake again, even though terrible things keep happening up there.

Think of the Big East as Crystal Lake.

Then think of Rutgers coach Greg Schiano as Jason. With guest appearances by Pitt's Dave Wannstedt as Michael Myers, Cincinnati's Brian Kelly as Freddie Krueger and UConn's Randy Edsall as Leatherface.

Yeah, that's kind of how it feels.

It is a confounding team, USF. Always, it is good enough to lord over September and beat someone you wouldn't expect. It winks at you, and it makes promises. Then Big East play begins, and the Bulls wobble and fall over sideways. In five years, the Bulls are 16-17 in the Big East, and that includes a 5-0 record against league doormat Syracuse. USF has won only four of its past 12 Big East games.

And that's the rub. Given its opponents, it's not too much to expect that USF makes the occasional run at the Big East title. The Bulls are old enough, and good enough, for that.

Yet, every year, they fade like a sprinter trying to run a marathon. The Bulls never strike you as quite physical enough. They never strike you as quite disciplined enough. They never strike you as quite complete enough.

Start with Leavitt on the sideline. You have to admire passion, and you have to admire fire. But there are times when you wonder how Leavitt's weekly blood boil affects his team.

Remember that last fourth and inches against West Virginia? Yes, the Bulls made it, and they ran out the clock. After the game, however, Leavitt admitted he went for the first down because he was angry about the ball placement on the previous down. That's not exactly the way strategy is supposed to work.

For all of the recent struggles, however, Leavitt is quick to point out how many things have gone well. He tells you how excited he is about the future.

Mention to him his team has lost three out of four, and he responds it has won six out of nine. Mention how badly his team has lost to Pitt and Rutgers, and he says "a loss is a loss.'' He points out his team is 6-3 with two losses to teams in the Top 10.

And let's agree on that. So far, the Bulls have had some nice moments this season.

Still, it feels as if this season could have been more.

With USF, doesn't it always?

Coach Jim Leavitt has to take blame for USF's annual late-season collapse 11/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 10:27pm]

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