Over the years, I've had several Big East coaches and administrators point to South Florida as the sleeping giant of the league.
They knew that if the Bulls got everything going, that program could turn into a dominant force in the conference. That's saying a lot for a school that didn't even field a football team until 1997, but South Florida has many advantages.
The No. 1 advantage, of course, is easy access to the gold mine that is Florida high school football talent. Bulls coaches rarely had to leave the state or even spend much time on airplanes in recruiting. Jim Leavitt's rosters usually were made up of about 95 percent Floridians, with the occasional player from Georgia or somewhere else mixed in. Everybody wants to recruit Florida; the Bulls are right in the heart of that talent pipeline in Tampa.
Leavitt's recruiting began to really gain steam recently as well. He pried defensive end Ryne Giddins away from Florida and others, like receiver Sterling Griffin, out of the clutches of Miami. The administration allowed Leavitt to mine the junior college route as well, and he plucked gems like Kion Wilson and Jason Pierre-Paul out of those ranks.
South Florida may never consistently outrecruit Florida, Florida State and Miami, but as one of only four BCS conference schools in the state, it has plenty of drawing power. And just winning a few of those battles, augmented by other outstanding local high school players, is enough to make the Bulls highly competitive in the Big East year in and year out.
The university is trying to shake free of its image as a commuter school, and the facilities aren't up to par with some of the Bulls' Big East counterparts. The team has no indoor practice facility, for instance, and has had to either cancel workouts or go inside the Sun Dome -- the school's basketball arena -- during big storms, which of course are commonplace in Florida. With little history and tradition to draw upon, the program lacks the well-heeled booster presence of other schools on its level.
But the Tampa location is enticing for recruits, as is the chance to play in Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls play in a large metropolitan area that loves football and will support a winner, as evidenced by the huge crowds for games against West Virginia, Cincinnati and Miami recently.
There will probably be a lot of piling on Leavitt in the coming hours and days. But let's pause here to applaud the job he did of bringing the program from nothing to this point. Whatever you think of the guy, he worked tirelessly and pulled off some stunning wins, including victories at Auburn and Florida State. He guided the Bulls to top-10 rankings in 2007 and 2008, peaking at No. 2 two years ago. He gave legitimacy to the idea that Florida would have a Big Four.
The next guy, if the Bulls make the right hire, could make things even better.