TAMPA — Jim Leavitt's path to coaching in the NFL started last year, when he spent many an early morning watching film with Jon Gruden, former coaches filling an uncomfortable void without a team.
"I'd get there about 4, 4:15, and Jon was already going. He was well into his day," the former USF coach said Wednesday night at the Westin Harbour Island hotel, walking distance from the condo he calls home. "I really appreciated him for doing that. I just sat and listened to (the former Bucs coach and former NFL assistant coach Rick Venturi) and tried to be around them, learned how they evaluated draft picks. We talked football, and I really enjoyed that."
Leavitt, who spent 32 years as a college coach and built USF from scratch to a Big East team that reached No. 2 in the national rankings, started a new chapter Wednesday when he was named linebackers coach of the San Francisco 49ers. After living in Tampa for 15 years, across the bay from where he grew up in St. Petersburg, he's moving to another coast, another bay area, and another level of football.
"I have so much more to learn about football," said Leavitt, who signed a two-year deal to join new coach Jim Harbaugh's staff. "I'm going to be a great listener. I'm very excited and so appreciative of being allowed to come on that staff."
Leavitt, 54, is back in football after a difficult year spent largely away from the game. He was fired by USF in January 2010 after a university investigation concluded he committed "serious violations" of its conduct policies by grabbing a player by the throat, striking him twice in the face during halftime of a November 2009 game, and lying to investigators and interfering with the investigation. Leavitt has denied the charges and last week reached a $2.75 million settlement with USF to end his wrongful termination lawsuit.
Leavitt leaves this weekend for California, but Wednesday was about spending time with his parents, Pierce and Lois, who have lived in St. Petersburg for the past 44 years, and seeing his daughters, 6-month-old Sofia and 15-year-old Deandra. He said he had "more than a couple" coaching job offers he turned down in recent weeks, saying the only college jobs he would consider were Division I-A head coaching jobs "where there's a shot," and that not every NFL opening would intrigue him the way his new job does.
"This was unique," said Leavitt, who has known Harbaugh's father, Jack, since USF faced his Western Kentucky team in the Bulls' first four seasons. He had dinner with both Harbaughs last spring during a visit to Stanford, where Jim was coach: "All I see is opportunity, and being with Jim Harbaugh, a guy who's arguably the hottest coach going right now."
The move gives Leavitt some distance from USF, and he said as heated as his firing and the ensuing legal battle were, he still loves the school he called home for 14 years.
"Jim Leavitt's plan was to be at South Florida forever, to retire and watch the Bulls play," he said. "That wasn't God's plan. God had another plan for me. Why? I don't know. There's another plan for me. I embrace that and accept that and have faith in that."
Former Bulls defensive lineman George Selvie, who just finished his rookie season with the Rams, got a text message from Leavitt on Wednesday, excited about the chance to join some of his former players in the NFL.
"I told him I get to see him twice a year when we play them, and he said, 'Yeah. Get ready,' " Selvie said. "Coach Leavitt has been there and done that, has all the experience he needs. I feel like he'll do a great job in the NFL, and his players will be hungry to win. I'm glad to see him coaching again and back doing something he loves."