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Former USF coach Jim Leavitt enjoys 49ers Super Bowl run

Jim Leavitt’s linebacking unit, including Aldon Smith, is among the NFL’s best. “I think I’m where I’m supposed to be,” he says.
Jim Leavitt’s linebacking unit, including Aldon Smith, is among the NFL’s best. “I think I’m where I’m supposed to be,” he says.
Published Jan. 30, 2013


On the silliest day in sports, the football coach stands on the sideline, and the huge crowd mills around him, and in some ways, he must feel as if he has been thrown into a cartoon.

There are football players and reporters, and clowns and superheroes, and just behind him, there is a woman wearing a construction hat for no apparent reason. There are loud voices and strange costumes and questions asked for the sheer stupidity they bring with them.

Jim Leavitt, a coach reborn, smiles as he looks around.

And who would have believed this?

He has seen some things over the years. Once, Leavitt stood in front of a trailer and envisioned a football program. Once, he stood in front of the USF fans and raised his arms in triumph. Once, he saw his team ranked briefly as No. 2 in the nation.

He has never seen anything like this, however. Jim Leavitt is in the Super Bowl. And, yeah, maybe things do happen for a purpose.

"Surreal," is the first word that Leavitt says, glancing up toward the ticking clock on the Superdome scoreboard.

"I'm at peace. I'm happy."

Who wouldn't be? At 56, Leavitt has endured the controversy that cost him his previous job as the USF coach. He is the linebackers coach for the San Francisco 49ers these days. Considering that his players include Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, you might consider it one of the most envied coaching jobs in the NFL.

That said, his old job never seems very far away from Leavitt. The old stories come easily, about this player or that one, about this game or that one. He does not seem bitter. He does not seem angry. Even when the scandal comes up — the one where the administrators decided they believed that he struck a student during halftime — his voice never rises.

And if you are wondering, he still denies the incident.

"I didn't do anything wrong," Leavitt said. "The only thing that was painful for me was when I saw seven assistants get fired two days later. I was in tears over that. But when you're in it this long, you have a pretty thick skin. I wanted the truth to come out, but I was okay with what happened with me."

You ask him if there were dark days after that, if he wondered if he might not coach again. He shakes his head.

"I was just thinking about 'what's next,' " he said. "I thought something good was going to happen. Obviously, I didn't know it would be this.

"I don't want to sound religious. I'm not doing that. But I always believed God is in control. Tampa was not where I was supposed to be. I think I'm where I'm supposed to be."

You ask him if he thinks that USF believed that he was guilty of the allegations.

'"I don't see how they could," he said. "Not with that kind of settlement ($2.75 million). You don't give that kind of settlement money if you believe it. Especially not at USF."

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So what happened? If it wasn't about a player being struck, why would USF fire its only coach?

"You'll have to ask them," he said. "Maybe it was about control. Maybe it was about not winning enough. It was their prerogative to fire me. I just didn't like the way it happened.

"After I was fired, I wasn't even allowed back on campus. I had to have former players get my things for me. The athletic director never asked me what happened. Not once."

Through a spokesman, USF officials declined comment Tuesday.

Whatever you believe, the months following Leavitt's dismissal were hard ones for him. But Leavitt knew Jim Harbaugh through his dad, former Western Kentucky coach Jack Harbaugh. It was enough of a connection that Harbaugh hired Leavitt when he went to the 49ers.

"He's intense," Harbaugh said. "He has good football knowledge, and he's done a great job with our linebackers without a lot of fanfare."

Said Bowman: "I love Jim Leavitt. He reminds me of my high school coach in a way. He never lets you have a day off. Even if you aren't feeling good, he finds a way to make you smile."

Leavitt is grinning a lot, too. Eighteen years ago, Vince Tobin offered him a job coaching linebackers for the Cardinals. Instead, he took a $20,000 pay cut to go to USF. He won 95 games there.

In case you are wondering, Leavitt likes the hire of new USF coach Willie Taggart.

"I've known him for a long time," Leavitt said. "He would text me almost every week for two years before he was hired. I know he'll be successful because he has the same kind of passion about where he grew up. I really like him. I like his heart. I like who he is.

"I told him: 'Don't back off of anybody. Go after everybody.' "

Life changes. Had Leavitt stayed, he believes he would have won a Big East title. He believes quarterback B.J. Daniels would have flourished in the spread offense he had planned.

Still, it shows you this. Sometimes, coaches land on their feet.

"I believe in rainbows," he said. "I believe in the little pot of gold at the end of rainbows. You know what I'm saying. Sometimes, you need storms so the flowers can grow."

He is no longer a head coach. Leavitt says he's fine with that, too. He talks about being a student, about learning the 3-4 defense, about getting the cutting edge of defense. He likes having a few players and working closely with them.

"If I ran a restaurant, where do you think I would be," he said. "I'd be in the kitchen, or out wiping down tables. That's who I am."

Leavitt says two Division I-A teams have talked to him about head coaching jobs. If the right one came along, he says he would consider it.

For now, he is happy. He likes his job, he likes his players, and he likes being in the Super Bowl.

After all, when a man believes in rainbows, the rest takes care of itself.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.