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Go West, veteran coach: Leavitt gets results at Colorado

Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire

The Colorado Buffaloes are bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. In coach Mike MacIntyre’s first three seasons, the Buffs were 2-25 in Pac-12 games. They lost 10 times by one possession, twice in double-overtime heartbreakers.

Following Saturday’s 10-5 win at Stanford, MacIntyre asked his seniors to stand up in the locker room. Those are the guys who didn’t quit. MacIntyre said they “rose from the ashes.’’

So, too, has one of the most important components of Colorado’s comeback story, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. He oversees the nation’s No. 12-ranked unit, a major reason why the Buffs are 6-2 overall, 4-1 in the Pac-12.

Jim Leavitt.

You might remember the name.

He was the patriarch of University of South Florida football, starting the program from scratch in 1996 with a fall of practices, but no games. In less than a decade, he took the Bulls from a Division I-AA curiosity to full-fledged members of the Big East Conference and the nation’s No. 2 ranking in that same 2007 season when Colorado was last bowl-eligible.

The end was ugly in South Florida. Leavitt, 95-57 in 13 seasons at USF, was dismissed following the 2009 season after an independent investigation concluded that he grabbed a player by the throat and struck him twice during halftime of a home game. The investigation asserted that Leavitt was untruthful during questioning about the alleged incident.

Leavitt denied the charges and sued USF, claiming he had been wrongfully terminated from his position. Leavitt eventually received a $2.75-million settlement and shifted to the NFL, spending four seasons coaching linebackers for Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers.

Leavitt’s heart, though, never left the college game.

His skill at building a defense is working once again. When Leavitt was hired at Colorado in 2015, the Buffs had the nation’s No. 114-ranked defense. Now it’s No. 12.

Leavitt and Bob Stoops once were co-defensive coordinators at Kansas State, when the Wildcats were beyond hopeless. In 1990, K-State had the nation’s 93rd-ranked defense. By 1995, it was No. 1 and Leavitt soon was hired to be the head coach of USF’s new football program in his native Tampa Bay area.

The beginnings of USF football strained belief. The first staff meeting was held under a palm tree (because there wasn’t a football facility, let alone a spare meeting room). The program grew quickly, driven by Leavitt’s maniacally obsessive standards. He famously drove his car to the edge of USF’s new practice field one night, shining his headlights on the freshly installed chain-link fence because he wanted to be certain it wasn’t crooked and the cement was drying evenly.

Everything was going 100 miles an hour, no detail too small. Well, there was a minor blip: About an hour before USF’s first game, a team manager noticed that no one brought a kicking tee, so he was quickly dispatched to a nearby sporting-goods store.

Game on!

It was fast and furious after that. That’s the Leavitt style. You’re either with him or against him. He always inspired loyalty, usually with players told they weren’t good enough by rival programs. Leavitt built plenty of fire-breathing defensive units with players like that.

Woebegone Colorado and its 10 consecutive losing seasons?

That was nothing new to Leavitt. He has always been fueled by such challenges.

The Buffs were No. 85 nationally in total defense last season, but that was a learning year. With seven returning starters, each of whom had bought into Leavitt’s aggressive take-no-prisoners system, the Buffs have become a changed team.

“I didn’t come to Colorado to play people close,’’ Leavitt told BuffsZone.com earlier this season, following a 45-28 loss at Michigan. “I’m telling you, Colorado can win. There’s no excuses. I don’t want to hear excuses. I didn’t come here to mess around.’’

He never has done that.

And now, once again, Leavitt is getting results.

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