|From trailers to No. 2: South Florida pulls off college football miracle in the Sunshine State|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 17 October 2007 10:03|
``Some of the offices had windows. Some didn't,'' Burnham remembered. ``I had a window. It came with the job. I had a palm tree right in front of my window.''
A palm tree and a dream. That was about all South Florida had going for it in those early years.
``We were selling the dream,'' said defensive coordinator Burnham. ``We were trying to sell guys on the idea of building something.''
Trophies? The most prominent piece of hardware in South Florida's athletic building is from its one and only postseason victory, the PapaJohns.com Bowl less than 10 months ago. The Rose Bowl, it ain't.
Tradition? The closest thing around here to Touchdown Jesus was the ``Ponderosa'' - the affectionate nickname for a now deposed group of trailers that once housed the coaches' offices and meeting rooms. That's where the Bulls cut their teeth, enduring floors pocked with holes, huge young men crammed into tiny spaces and the occasional drive from the baseball field next door.
``We don't have the tradition of those other schools,'' said South Florida's high-strung coach, Jim Leavitt. ``We do have a story to tell.''
Ten years after taking the field for the first time, facing schools such as Kentucky Wesleyan and Cumberland, the Bulls are one spot away from being the No. 1 team in the land.
The only school ahead of them is Ohio State, a regal program that was winning national titles before South Florida even existed - and we're talking about the university, not just the football program.
``I always knew there was a lot of potential here,'' said Doug Woolard, the Bulls' athletic director. ``But it's like a switch flipped on.''
Call it the Sunshine State miracle.
About quarter-century ago, a tip of America known for its beaches, retirement homes and Mickey Mouse suddenly emerged as the hub of college football.
There was brash, cocky Miami, winning one national title after another with rebellious players and an outlaw attitude. There was high-scoring Florida State, which seemed to stake out a permanent place in the top five with its homespun coach, Bobby Bowden. There was ``Fun 'n' Gun'' Florida, completing the Big Three once Steve Spurrier settled in the Swamp.
Year after year, they played in the most crucial of games and the biggest of bowls - often against each other.
Now all of them are looking up at this johnny-come-lately to the sunshine wars. Florida is No. 14 in this week's Associated Press rankings. Florida State and Miami aren't ranked at all.
There's South Florida, sitting at No. 2.
``I'm not surprised at all,'' said Miami linebacker Colin McCarthy, who is from nearby Clearwater. Then he comes clean. ``OK, a little bit. I'm not going to lie.''
Where did this school come from?
From the name, most people outside the state are likely to guess South Florida is in Miami or Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach. Actually, the flat, bland campus - its architectural theme has all the charm of an office park or military base - blends into a seemingly endless stretch of strip malls and fast-food restaurants on the northern edges of sprawling Tampa.
Founded in 1956, the school held its first classes four years later. Mimicking the state's explosive growth, South Florida has ballooned to nearly 45,000 students, making it the ninth-largest university in the country.
The rise of the football program was just as hasty, and with success has come plenty of whispers.
Jealous rivals believe South Florida's rapid rise can be attributed to its willingness to cut corners academically. Alabama coach Nick Saban actually went on the record a few weeks ago, saying the Bulls have benefited from taking players who didn't qualify at other schools.
``I think there are six guys starting on South Florida's defense who probably could have gone to Florida or Florida State, but Florida and Florida State couldn't take them,'' he told a Birmingham (Ala.) newspaper.
He also could have singled out South Florida's third-leading rusher, Mike Ford, who didn't have the grades to get in Alabama. He played at a prep academy in Virginia and a junior college in Mississippi before landing with the Bulls.
USF's athletic director pointed out that South Florida voted for a Big East proposal that bars member schools from taking partial qualifiers in any sport. Leavitt was more blunt in his defense against Saban's charge.
``Why that bothers me is it takes a hit at the credibility of our program,'' Leavitt said. ``He's attacking the heart and soul.''
School administrators first considered a football program in October 1991. Four years later, Leavitt was named the head coach. He quickly assembled a recruiting class of 81 players, spent a year practicing, then sent out the Bulls for their opening game on Sept. 6, 1997.
South Florida gave a tantalizing glimpse of the success to come, routing Kentucky Wesleyan 80-3 before nearly 50,000 fans at old Tampa Stadium.
In a sense, what Leavitt has done is unprecedented, at least since college football's formative years. The 50-year-old who grew up across the bay in St. Petersburg built a program from nothing, oversaw its transition from the Ponderosa to a new 104,000-square-foot training facility, and stuck around long enough to lead it to national prominence.
``He's been the perfect fit,'' Woolard said. ``He's from here. He knows the landscape. He's built relationships with coaches throughout Florida. From a characteristic standpoint, he's probably one of the most intense, one of the most focused coaches I've ever been around. He's very, very passionate about his job.''
At the start of practice, Leavitt bobs and weaves around groups of stretching players, waving his arms and barking out orders. When the team gathers in the middle of the field for a little rah-rah-rah before getting down to the real work, Leavitt goes off by himself: head down, walking in short, quick circles, like a caged animal.
Suddenly, he breaks into a full sprint, leading his players to an adjacent practice field, where he will spend the rest of the day running right alongside them during drills, yelling incessantly in that distinctive, husky voice of his.
``Here we go! Here we go! Don't walk, run! Don't walk, run!
``Hustle! Hustle! Hustle! It's not going to be funny if they break one in a game!
``Go again! Go again! I can't go to sleep on that one tonight!''
It's hard to envision Leavitt actually sleeping, at least during football season. He's a combination of nervous energy and quirky tics, with a bit of paranoia tossed into the mix.
``I don't feel like I'm that intense,'' Leavitt said after Tuesday's practice, his gray shirt soaked in sweat after a 75-minute session on another hazy, humid Florida afternoon. ``Other people might.''
Leavitt learned early on that he couldn't put limits on anyone. He stretched his imagination during the recruiting process, looking for late bloomers, undersized players with heart, anyone with potential who got passed over by the big boys.
``A lot of our players had nowhere else to go,'' Leavitt said. ``This was their best option. We weren't going to beat Florida or Florida State or Miami or hardly anybody for players.''
But Bowden, the venerable Florida State coach, said there's long been enough high school talent in the state to stock another top-level program. South Florida just happens to be the one that filled the void.
``Let's say we're going after two wide receivers,'' Bowden said. ``Well, there's 20 of 'em in the state that can play. We'll try to pick two out, but if we're not careful, we might not pick the two that are as good as the others.''
The Bulls have become the heart and soul of a campus that long played second fiddle to those haughty schools in Gainesville and Tallahassee and Miami.
``They talk about the 'Big Three' in Florida,'' said Peter Filipowicz, a senior majoring in secondary education. ``Now, it's the 'Big Four.'''
A couple of days before Thursday night's crucial game at Rutgers, the USF bookstore was buzzing with customers looking for anything green and gold, as if donning the school colors might somehow keep this magical run going right through to the national championship game.
Leavitt refuses to get caught up in all the hype. He wakes up every morning thankful to have another day. He shrugs off any talk of polls or unbeaten seasons or national titles.
Maybe after the season. Not now.
``We good?'' he asks, eager to get back to work. Then he jogs away, back up that sandy road that connects the practice field to the athletic complex.
Still chasing a dream, this one bigger than anyone could have imagined.
AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami and Fred Goodall in Tampa contributed to this report.