TAMPA — Hillsborough High football coach Earl Garcia has sent nearly 20 players to USF to play for coach Jim Leavitt, including freshman Bulls running back Lindsey Lamar. And before the news of Leavitt's firing emerged Friday morning, Garcia said highly recruited senior defensive back Terrence Mitchell considered USF as one of his two favorite schools.
But Leavitt's removal couldn't come at a worse time in the recruiting season, just 26 days before national signing day Feb. 3.
"It's a bad situation," Garcia said. "I don't know what I tell T-Rex (Mitchell). I guess I just tell him to hold tight and wait a bit. But they have to move in a quick manner. I think it will affect their recruiting unless they name a person from the staff not only as the interim but the coach for 2010. (Friday's) the 8th and signing day is (Feb. 3), so it doesn't leave these kids a lot of time to make a major life decision like that."
Other recruits are more decisive.
Gibbs defensive lineman Tim Jackson, one of the top recruits in Pinellas County and a three-star prospect by Rivals.com, listed USF among his top six schools. But he dropped the Bulls from consideration Friday.
"No way I'm going there," Jackson said. "I made that decision about 20 minutes after I found out what happened to Coach Leavitt. He's a good coach and a good guy. What the school did was wrong. I've heard that the entire coaching staff will be gone, and I don't want to be a part of that mess."
Mitchell, who is making an official visit to Florida State this weekend, liked USF and the opportunity to play with Lamar, his cousin, in college. Garcia said he believed FSU and USF were Mitchell's favorites, with Illinois in the mix, but now, "I don't even know."
Mitchell, ranked the fifth-best cornerback recruit in the nation and 14th-best overall prospect in Florida, took an official visit to USF on Dec. 11.
In North Florida, Lake City Columbia coach Craig Howard, who coached Tim Tebow at Nease High before taking the Columbia job last year, said his two USF commitments are waiting to see what happens.
Tiger Powell (6 feet 1, 210 pounds; Rivals' 79th-ranked running back prospect in the nation) and receiver Jamaal Montague (6-1, 185) both committed to the Bulls.
"We have not heard from USF as of yet," Howard said. "One thing we need to know is are the (offers) guaranteed if a new coach comes in. It would put them in a tough position if the college were to drop them."
Interim USF coach Carl Franks can't guarantee what the next coach will do, but he said in general new coaches honor scholarship offers.
Howard said the phones have been ringing as word of Leavitt's firing spreads. Coaches from FAU, FIU and some MAC schools have expressed interest.
"But the boys would love to go to USF," Howard said. "Coach Leavitt is a good man and we're disappointed he won't be there."
Miami Northwestern defensive tackle Todd Chandler (6-0, 300), is being recruited by USF but has a visit this weekend to Louisville, where two of his teammates have committed.
"I heard that they fired Coach Leavitt," he said from a North Carolina airport. "Coach (Larry) Scott called me. … He said he wanted me to know about Coach Leavitt before I heard stories.
"I don't know now. Yeah, I'll have to wait and see."
Mid-level prospects hoping to grab Division I offers are in limbo as well.
USF has been Alonso quarterback C.J. Bennett's dream school, and he participated in camps there hoping to impress the Bulls. When a quarterback target committed elsewhere, the Bulls began actively recruiting Bennett, offering him an official visit for Jan. 22. USF offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Canales just visited him Monday.
The 6-0 Bennett, the Tampa Bay area's second-leading passer with 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns this past season, was eager for the visit and hoped it might lead to a scholarship.
"It's hard," Bennett's father, Chip, said Friday morning, just hours before Bennett was heading to Division I-AA South Alabama for an official visit. "… He developed a good relationship with Coach Canales, so you wait and see where some of those coaches land."
Times staff writers Bob Putnam and Greg Auman and the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.