NEW ORLEANS — 49ers LB coach Jim Leavitt has learned a lot in his interesting path from the lower levels of college football all the way up to the NFL. But his most important takeaway might be this: Don’t worry about what you can’t control.
That served Leavitt well when he fell from college-football grace — and near royalty — as one of the birthing fathers of the University of South Florida program. The inaugural coach at USF, Leavitt had guided the Bulls from lowly startup with nothing but a trailer for the football offices and no practice field in its inception to a national presence, with five straight bowl appearances. But he was let go following the 2009 season when the university said Leavitt hit a player at halftime of the Louisville game that season.
Leavitt went from making $1.5 million a year and being a rock star in the Tampa area with his bombastic sideline demeanor to being unemployed, and nearly forgotten. He spent 2010 searching for his next challenge. Leavitt did some work for Under Armour and was whipped into shape with Jon Gruden and Gruden’s Fired Football Coaches of America group that pored over tape and stayed fresh with early-morning football think-tank sessions. Not exactly full-time work, however.
Forgive Leavitt if he believes in signs, though. As he went back to Missouri for a weekend that fall to check on a business he owned in Jefferson City, Leavitt decided to go back to his alma mater for a game at Mizzou and do what years of pacing sidelines never allowed: sit in the stands and be a fan.
“I could have gone on the sidelines; I did not want to do that. I wanted to go sit in the stands,” said Leavitt, a safety at Missouri in the late 1970s. “I saw a bunch of guys I used to play with. I even tailgated. I never get a chance to do that. How fun it was. Never had been in that situation.”
As Leavitt watched Mizzou upset No. 1-ranked Oklahoma, one play stood out. A sophomore defensive end by the name of Aldon Smith who had just returned from a broken leg to intercept a Landry Jones pass and run it back 50 yards. Although Smith was caught from behind, the fact that he only had missed three games with the injury make for a pretty good explanation.
“I was 50, maybe 60 percent (healthy) that day,” Smith said. “But that play definitely changed my career.”
Leavitt’s, too. Remember the name, he thought. Coaches never forget talent. Leavitt had helped turn the lowly, sad Kansas State program into a defensive monster in the early 1990s, and the Wildcats mostly have been competitive since. But it’s easy to forget just how bad they were before the arrival of Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops and Leavitt.
“We never even really prepared for Kansas State when I (played) at Missouri,” Leavitt said. “We’d always scout the team after them on the schedule. I mean that, too. We never paid them any attention.
“I missed one game in my career. It was the K-State game. (The coaches) said, ‘You don’t need to play this week, just rest.’”
South Florida football didn’t even exist before Leavitt was hired as its first head coach in 1995, moving from Division I-AA all the way to being a member of the Big East. The program peaked at a No. 2 ranking in 2007 and for years proved to be a tough, defensive-oriented team that scared the wits out of the big boys.
But the reason Leavitt found himself in the stands that day in Columbia, Mo. was because of what happened during the Louisville game. There were reports that Leavitt was untruthful in reporting what happened to school officials and that he tampered with the investigations. To this day, Leavitt said he did nothing wrong and believes that the claims stem from the school’s desire to make a coaching change.
“There’s no question the administration, they felt like we weren’t where they wanted us to be (in the rankings) and I think it was more about that, thinking they maybe had a way of getting out of the contract,” Leavitt said. “You’d have to ask them. I never knew the reasons I was (fired).
“What’s ironic is that I was not allowed to go back on campus to clean out my office, but before that I coached out the rest of the season. If it was that atrocious, whatever happened, why didn’t they fire me sooner? I took the team internationally and coached in a bowl game. It made no sense. It was a different kind of deal.
“I was always honest. I always tell the truth, even though the truth really isn’t out there.”
Right or wrong, Leavitt was out at South Florida and his coaching career hung in the balance. Despite the fact he settled a suit with the school the following year for $2.75 million for “salary and benefits” and for his years of contributions to the USF program, there was a feeling he was blackballed in some coaching circles for the incident and its aftermath.
But coaching is as much about who you know as what you know, and Leavitt got a call from new 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, who was putting a coaching staff together early in 2011. He needed a linebackers coach, and Leavitt suddenly was intrigued. He’d “never been much of an NFL guy” and “never had time to mess with it,” he said, but was fascinated at the new challenge and took the job over a few college coordinator offers.
Leavitt and Harbaugh never had worked together but had a connection. Leavitt had faced Jim’s dad, Jack Harbaugh, when Leavitt was at USF and Jack was at Western Kentucky. They split the four-game series — the first two to Jack, the last two to Leavitt. They made a deal after that: No more playing each other.
“After the fourth game, I told Jack, ‘I really don’t want to play you guys anymore. You’re too good.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to play you guys either.’ So I think there was a mutual respect there,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt went on to meet Jim Harbaugh at a handful of coaching conventions over the years. They were each there to learn, not schmooze. What they found as they spoke was that there was too much of the latter and not enough of the former.
“I didn’t care to socialize too much, and I don’t think Jim did either. I just wanted to coach. I am not a big mingler,” Leavitt said. “Jim, his personality, you just know he likes to coach and the other stuff is whatever. He wants to get done with this (media attention) and get out on the field.”
A match was made. Leavitt joined a staff that was loaded with veteran, sage coaching talent — coordinator Vic Fangio, DB coach Ed Donatell, DL coach Jim Tomsula — they were all dyed in the wool around the league, whereas Leavitt, for all his coaching prowess, was an NFL neophyte.
“I didn’t know Vic at all,” Leavitt said. “I always appreciate him because I am sure he had a list of guys he had worked with before who could have been (the LB coach). That’s not easy for a guy who has been a coordinator as long as he has to let me, the new guy, be a part of this deal.”
Leavitt jumped head first into his new gig. Right away, it was obvious he had an established star in Patrick Willis. But there was a question whether Takeo Spikes, who had an outstanding season in 2010, would return. Leavitt feared Spikes might sign elsewhere, so he dug into tape on NaVorro Bowman, who played sparingly behind Willis and Spikes. What Leavitt saw inspired him.
“I had seen (Bowman) at Penn State and studied him more with Gruden,” Leavitt said. “I knew he really wanted to start. I had no reservations whatsoever when Takeo left. I knew (Bowman) was very gifted. He’s just so relentless to be great.”
Prior to the lockout hitting that March, Leavitt called Bowman and couldn’t contain his excitement.
“I was at Dave and Buster’s with my son, getting in the car and he called me,” Bowman said of his new LB coach. “He said, ‘Man, I am excited to coach you guys. I’ve been watching you for a long time.’
“But what he didn’t know was that I was a fan of him, too. He was at USF, and he brought that team up from nothing. I was up at Penn State for my visit when they played USF, and I always wondered who that coach (of theirs) was. You’d see him on the sideline and he’s so enthusiastic during the game, and that’s the type of coach you want to play for.
“That first conversation I really knew he was happy to be my coach. That’s what made me excited to come back (from the lockout) ready to go and see how far we can take this thing.”
After the lockout, the 49ers picked seventh in the 2011 draft. It was assumed they’d go with a quarterback, with Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert the presumed favorite. Instead, they went with his college teammate, Smith. Leavitt was tickled. He thought of the play in the OU game and had picked his brain previously during the pre-draft process.
“I took him out to breakfast,” Leavitt said. “We talked about football, about Mizzou, about everything. I felt he might be something special.”
Remarkable equates to 33½ sacks in Smith’s first 32 regular-season games. Although he has been held without a sack in his past five games, the longest spell of his early career, Smith contributed to the NFC championship victory with a tide-shifting fumble recovery of a botched Matt Ryan snap. Leavitt couldn’t be happier for his young, gifted pass rusher’s success.
“We always knew he was gifted. We knew he had the athletic talent,” Leavitt said. “I didn’t know him inside, how fast he would transition (to a 3-4 defense) coming from the 4-3 he had played in, to be honest with you. It’s been remarkable, really.”
With Willis, Smith, Bowman and Ahmad Brooks, the 49ers’ linebackers quickly ascended to becoming one of the finest units in the NFL, as dynamic as any foursome as the league has seen in recent seasons. Leavitt spends most of his time coaching the inside guys, Willis and Bowman, while Fangio works more with Smith and Brooks on the outside. Willis raised his game even more, and Bowman rose from obscurity before last season to become one of the NFL’s premier inside ’backers. He credits Leavitt’s encouraging style as a big reason why he has been able to take the next step.
“Anytime something goes bad, he finds something good in it,” Bowman said. “He’s not cursing or yelling at us; you’re going to make mistakes, and Jim’s a guy who comes over and says, ‘You got it. You know what you did (wrong).’ That’s just something you want to hear in a tough game.”
It likely comes from his background as a player, and Leavitt is quick to correct his misguided Wikipedia page that mentions his time as a graduate assistant as Missouri but not his four years of playing there. The page lists his position as quarterback, not safety, which he didn’t play after high school.
“I am very proud of my Missouri days, and I think it was just such an interesting (coincidence) that I was there that day to see Aldon play,” Leavitt said. “It was if it was meant to be.”
After the fallout of the USF mess, Leavitt considers himself to be the luckiest coach in the world. He’ll be coaching the NFL’s best linebacker unit in Sunday’s Super Bowl with a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. For a man who never thought about the NFL and who was so ingrained into college football for more than half his life, it’s a dream he never knew he could have before last season.
“I didn’t know what my future held, but I knew my time (at USF) was over,” he said. “I was at peace with that. My life now has taken such a great turn. I feel I am infinitely blessed.”