There is little question that Colorado hired a good coach when it named Jim Leavitt its defensive coordinator last week. Leavitt studied under Hall of Famer Bill Snyder at Kansas State and then built South Florida from nothing into a nationally ranked team as head coach.
But Leavitt's availability to the Buffaloes, a program struggling to crawl back to respectability, is in large part because of a controversy that stunningly ended his 13-year tenure at South Florida and had some wondering if he'd ever return to the college ranks.
At some point, Leavitt, who spent the past four seasons coaching linebackers for the San Francisco 49ers, will be recruiting for Colorado and an athlete or his father or mother is going to ask him what happened at South Florida in 2009-10, when he was fired with cause, according to the school, after an altercation with a player and subsequent interference in the investigation.
It was an ugly incident, fraught with conflicting accounts. The player in question, Joel Miller, is still bitter about what happened. His father, Paul, told told CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd that the hiring was "terrible," adding that Leavitt "... doesn't belong with any kids."
Leavitt wants to put the issue in the past and to talk about his new job, but he also knows that more than a few folks will be uncertain about him.
“In recruiting, if you are going to have to get a player to come [to your school], you are going to have to develop a relationship -- a real relationship," Leavitt said. "There is no player who is going to go to any school without a great relationship, with not only the coach, but with the recruiter. When we spend time about that, I will be very honest about everything.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to be an issue. I don’t see that at all.”
Leavitt, 58, has always steadfastly denied wrongdoing. He essentially won a wrongful termination lawsuit when USF settled with him for $2.75 million. Colorado athletic director Rick George told CBS that Leavitt was thoroughly vetted before was hired.
"We've done our due diligence," George told Dodd, "and feel very confident it was an isolated incident."
Said Leavitt, "The only comment I’ll have on that is I was always honest, never lied, always told the truth. Then it just goes from there. [Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre] is going to do all the background work to hire anybody. He knows me. He knows who I am. I think he knows the credibility I have.”
MacIntyre and Leavitt became acquainted when MacIntyre was San Jose State's coach. They both attended the same church. When Jim Harbaugh and his staff were let go by the 49ers in January, MacIntyre asked Leavitt if he had any interest in replacing Kent Baer as defensive coordinator. After establishing mutual interest, prolonged discussions began. The end game was a three-year contract worth $500,000, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.
“I wanted to coach, bad. I had another year on my contract with the 49ers but I didn’t want to sit out," Leavitt said. "I love coaching so much. My wife said I’d drive her absolutely nuts. I really wanted to get back to college.”
What Leavitt plans to bring to the Buffs, scheme-wise, is unclear. Colorado played a 4-3 last year and Leavitt was a 4-3 guy at South Florida, but 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is a 3-4 adherent, so Leavitt now has a strong taste for odd and even fronts. He also has plenty of experience running a variety of man and zone schemes in his secondary. It does seem as though he's more of a mind to build his scheme around personnel rather than try to adopt his personnel to a scheme.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure [what defense Colorado will run]," he said. "I haven’t seen even one guy run anywhere. I’ve got to get to know these guys and what they can and cannot do. That will take some time. The biggest thing I’m all about is guys playing with passion, guys playing with great effort. My philosophy is going to flow with what these guys can do.”
The likelihood is what Leavitt decides to do will work much better than what the Buffaloes did the past two years, when they had defenses that ranked among the nation's worst. For one, he's got eight starters back and MacIntyre has recruited some solid young talent. Second, he's considered an A-list defensive mind.
Questions about Leavitt, at least as he begins his tenure in Boulder, won't be about whether or not he can coach football well. It will be about how things ended at South Florida. Pinning down exactly what happened between Leavitt and that player five years ago, not to mention its context and how the investigation was handled, would be difficult. Moreover, we are a people that believe in second chances.
Leavitt is hoping folks see things like he does. He's moved on.
“It never was an issue with me because I always told the truth and always knew what was right," he said. "When you know you’re right, you know you don’t have any issues. I never felt any different in my life. Half of the people believe you, half the people won’t. That’s just the way life is. I never had an issue and that is why I never got bogged down. However other people want to take it, I can’t control that.”