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USF football has national recognition

USF receiver Taurus Johnson runs toward the end zone during the Sun Bowl, a 56-21 loss to Oregon. Despite the defeat, it was  USF’s best season ever.

TED McLAREN | Times (2007)

USF receiver Taurus Johnson runs toward the end zone during the Sun Bowl, a 56-21 loss to Oregon. Despite the defeat, it was USF’s best season ever.

Jim Leavitt was well-aware of how much the past year had changed the profile of his USF football program, but it might not have hit him until he got away from campus two weeks ago.

He and his wife, Jody, were ordering breakfast, and the waitress couldn't help herself: "You're Jim Leavitt. I can't believe it," she said.

Thing is, they were in Hawaii. On a remote island celebrating their first anniversary. This kind of recognition gives new meaning to "national exposure."

Ask Leavitt what has fueled USF's emergence to relevance outside the state, outside its conference, and he fires off the possibilities.

"It could be playing in the Big East or getting up to No. 2 in the nation last year," he said. "It could be beating Auburn and West Virginia on TV; or having (defensive end) George Selvie and (quarterback) Matt Grothe back; or seeing (cornerback) Mike Jenkins drafted in the first round.

"It's really a combination of all of them."

There are so many signs USF is in a different place in 2008.

There are actual signs, such as 21 billboards touting season tickets from Pinellas County to Lakeland, including one near downtown Tampa of Leavitt making the Bulls hand signal and pointing to northbound traffic on Interstate 275.

There's unprecedented national TV coverage with six games slated for broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2, including games on Thursday, Friday and Sunday nights. School officials said this week season ticket sales are approaching 24,000, up nearly 35 percent from this time last year and about 4,000 more than the Bulls finished with last season.

When Leavitt arrives this morning at the Tampa Marriott Waterside, where the state's college coaches will meet with media members from across the state, he might show signs of his celebrity status. Invited to attend the taping of the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, he was scheduled to take a 10:30 p.m. red-eye flight from California on Wednesday night and arrive in Tampa at 6:30 this morning.

"It's just been nuts," Leavitt said of his busiest summer, which has included speaking engagements ranging from booster gatherings, local church groups and Rotary clubs to national corporate events.

"It's been a good story. I'm always appreciative of people asking me to speak," said Leavitt, who wouldn't guess how many events he had attended but remembered a stretch of 10 in eight days. "There will be a day when I won't get called anymore."

In two weeks, he'll attend the Big East preseason media gathering in Rhode Island, where the Bulls are likely to be picked higher than the fourth place of a year ago. West Virginia is still a heavy favorite to win the league, but the Bulls face it in the regular-season finale in Morgantown on Dec. 6.

USF made it to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll after a 6-0 start last year, but it lost three straight to fall out then finished with a 56-21 loss to Oregon in the Sun Bowl. So the Bulls have come out of their best season ever with a chip on their shoulder, motivated to prove last year's early success was no fluke.

On Aug. 4, practice begins, and USF opens its season with a new burden of high expectations, possibly including its first appearance in the AP preseason Top 25.

That ranking would be tested quickly.

After opening at home against Tennessee-Martin on Aug. 30, USF plays at Conference USA champion Central Florida on Sept. 6 then comes home for a Friday night showdown Sept. 12 against a Kansas team that finished last season ranked No. 7.

If this season is anything like 2007, Leavitt will have to go much farther than Hawaii if he wants a quiet breakfast unnoticed.

USF football has national recognition 07/16/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2008 9:50pm]
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