TAMPA, Fla. -- Jim Leavitt looked at me like I'd just asked him to help me move.
It was a typically sticky August day in 2000. I was a 21-year-old punk writing a freelance story for The Tampa Tribune. He was about to begin his fourth season at the helm of the nascent University of South Florida football program.
I asked him what it said about his program that freshman tight end Mark Feldman had turned down an offer from Virginia Tech, which had played Florida State for the national title eight months earlier, to play for USF, which was weeks away from entering Division I-A as schedule grist for such traditional titans as Kentucky, Baylor and Southern Miss.
"I don't blame him," Leavitt spat. "I wouldn't want to leave the state of Florida. In fact, I'd have been surprised if he went to Virginia Tech. I look at it differently."
Eight years later, it all makes sense.
Even in 1997, when the first-year Bulls got waxed by Western Kentucky and Elon, Leavitt knew he sat atop a potential goldmine. In 2003, when he and his staff still worked out of trailers and he turned down the Alabama job anyway, Leavitt knew his Bulls were headed to the Big East with almost every possible recruiting advantage necessary to build a juggernaut. Relatively new NFL stadium for a home field? Check. Scads of elite athletes within four hours' drive? Check. Beaches less than 30 minutes away (depending on traffic)? Check.
Thursday, Leavitt fielded questions at the Florida Sportswriters Association's media day about whether the term "Big Three" -- Florida, Florida State and Miami -- should be revised to include USF. A St. Petersburg native who remembers the 1970s, when a mediocre Florida program ruled the state, Leavitt sidestepped that landmine, tossing compliments at the programs that dominated college football for the final 20 years of the 20th century. But in his heart -- and in his recruiting spiel -- he probably wants to say something like this: Big Three? How about Big Two?
Think about it. Of the state's four BCS-conference programs, which ones have a realistic chance of playing in a BCS bowl this year? Florida, which returns Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, most of its offensive line and several excellent young defenders, certainly does. But Florida State and Miami?
The Seminoles will have to string together an offensive line from a group that seems to lose another player every day. The Hurricanes are coming off a 5-7 season, and while they have recruited well the past two years, they still may be two or three years away from looking like Luther Campbell's favorite squad.
Meanwhile, USF has as good a chance of winning the Big East as fellow favorites Rutgers, Pittsburgh or West Virginia. The Bulls probably weren't ready for the spotlight when they reached No. 2 last October thanks to wins against Auburn and West Virginia. They lost three in a row (Rutgers, Connecticut, Cincinnati) and laid an egg against Oregon in the Sun Bowl. Still, the experience taught the players who will return.
USF brings back 10 offensive and six defensive starters, including defensive end George Selvie, a first-team All-American who led the nation in tackles for loss last season with 31.5. Selvie is a typical USF recruit. A lightly regarded -- and at 230 pounds, extremely skinny -- center from Pensacola, Fla., Selvie jumped at the only Division I offer he received.
Now, get ready for the part that should have Big East coaches quaking. After more than 10 years of taking the players Florida, Florida State and Miami didn't want, Leavitt and his staff are getting traction with players who have offers to become Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes.
"Florida, Florida State and Miami get most of the guys they target," Leavitt said. "But we're really staying with a lot of those players a lot longer than we ever have, and we have gotten a player from all of them. The percentage is not real high, but it's happening. Before, it was never happening. It wasn't even in the discussion."
Leavitt can offer the aforementioned stadium, talented teammates and beaches. He also can offer exposure, and lots of it. Despite a backlash from Tampa Bay-area high school coaches who hate the thought of Friday night college games siphoning away paying fans, USF's administration will not turn down a prime-time, nationally televised game. If casual college football fans didn't discover the Bulls when they won at Auburn on a Saturday night last September, they certainly noticed them when they beat West Virginia in a packed Raymond James Stadium on an ESPN Friday night telecast 13 days later. This season, the Bulls will face Kansas in Tampa on ESPN on Friday, Sept. 12, They'll play Pitt and Cincinnati on ESPN Thursday telecasts, and they'll face UConn on ESPN2 on a Sunday.
Still, Leavitt knows of only one way to turn the Big Three into the Big Four. "It's a nice discussion," he said. "How does South Florida compare with some schools? I think tradition and the fact those schools have all won national championships, you have to beat them. And you've got to have the opportunity to do that."
In the coming years, the Bulls will. USF and Miami signed a five-game deal that will bring the Hurricanes to Tampa in 2009, 2011 and 2013 and send the Bulls southeast in 2010 and 2012. Back in the days when USF still took payday games, the Bulls agreed to play at Florida in 2008 and 2009. Those meetings have since been pushed to 2010 and 2015. Leavitt would like the Gators to reciprocate, but Florida doesn't give up home games worth more than $2 million a pop, especially if the Gators would have to face a team that might beat them on their own recruiting turf. "Florida won't come in here to Tampa," Leavitt said Thursday.
Still, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the Gators and Bulls could meet earlier than Sept. 11, 2010. What if USF wins the Big East and Florida has a great season stunted by a loss to an SEC champ that goes to the BCS title game? The Sugar Bowl would jump at a game between the Gators and Bulls. If that happened, neither team's coach would be shocked. Florida's Urban Meyer has heaped praise on Leavitt for years -- which may have something to do with the fact that Leavitt's Bulls dismantled Meyer's Bowling Green team in 2002 -- and he isn't the least bit surprised at USF's rise.
"Some people in the country might be shocked at what South Florida is doing," Meyer said Thursday. "But I think they've got an excellent coach. They've got a great city to recruit to. And there are athletes."
In college football, that's all that matters. Of the players currently on USF's roster, only seven hail from outside Florida, and the state isn't about to run out of players anytime soon. Yet despite the rapid ascension and rosy forecast, Leavitt is quick to point out the next stage is considerably steeper.
"It's not easy taking a program from trailers to where we are now," he said. "That's hard work. But this next step, it's like the top of Mount Everest. That part of the climb is really exhausting. Will our program be able to do all that? We'll see."
Even if Leavitt didn't think Mark Feldman's decision to turn down Virginia Tech proved anything in 2000, this next image should. As last Wednesday night bled into Thursday morning, Leavitt sat on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Tampa after attending the taping for ESPN's ESPY Awards. The chair in front of Leavitt reclined, and Leavitt chided his fellow passenger. "I don't want any of that anymore," Leavitt said as Florida's Meyer, the offending seatholder, smiled.
Both coaches sat in first class.