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Leave it to Leavitt: The man behind Oregon’s defensive rebuild

Doug Brenner jokingly calls him a psycho. Troy Dye compares him to the Energizer Bunny.

Juwaan Williams says his team’s new defensive coordinator is always loud. That is, when he’s had his daily dose of Pepsi, usually no less than three cans a day. But he only runs on original Pepsi — never Diet, Cherry or Vanilla.

During Jim Leavitt’s days at Colorado, because his wife didn’t allow Pepsi in the house, he often stopped at 7-Eleven to snag a couple bottles of his favorite drink.

“I don’t know if I could go to a Coke school,” Leavitt said.

The 60-year-old Leavitt, Oregon’s new defensive coordinator, is a one-of-a-kind coach who, during the offseason, became the Pac-12’s highest-paid assistant. Over his 39-year career, football has thrown the kitchen sink at him. He’s coached all over the country, from Iowa to Florida, Colorado and California.

He’s built a program from scratch, been fired twice, coached a Super Bowl team, sent players to the NFL and developed some of the best defenses in the history of college football.

Now, he’s been tasked with one of the most daunting jobs in the conference — rebuilding Oregon’s shattered defense, which even UO President Michael Schill joked about during the offseason: “Go find a great defensive coordinator,” Schill said during a press conference in December.

Schill had the statistics to back up his joke. The Ducks were the nation’s third-worst defense in 2016.

But for Leavitt, this lowly scenario is nothing new.

“If we play good defense here, we’ll tell a great story,” Leavitt said. “If we don’t then I won’t be here for long … and that’s the way it should be.”

A fast start

Leavitt, a native of St. Petersburg, Florida, began his college football career at Missouri, where he played four years under coach Al Onofrio and anchored the Tigers’ secondary as a safety.

After graduating in 1977, he spent two years as a graduate assistant at Missouri before heading to the state of Iowa where he bounced between smaller programs before landing another graduate assistant job at the University of Iowa.

Jim Leavitt

Oregon Ducks defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt calls for his first-team players. The Oregon Ducks hold practice during their spring season at the Moshofsky Sports Center in Eugene, Ore. on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Aaron Nelson/Emerald)

Leavitt spent each summer from 1980 to 1988 living out of his car at a KOA campground near campus to save his $300 stipend from Iowa and put it towards his doctorate in psychology. He was working on the research for his dissertation when Bill Snyder, the head coach of Iowa at the time, called him and asked him to come coach with him at Kansas State.

When Jim Leavitt arrived at Kansas State with soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach Snyder in 1989, the program was in freefall.

The Wildcats hadn’t won a game in 27 consecutive tries (0-26-1), had totaled three wins the prior four seasons and had one of the worst defenses in the country.

“They were bad,” said Leavitt, who eventually became the co-defensive coordinator.

Then, Leavitt and Snyder worked their magic. In seven years time, Kansas State became the second-best scoring defense in the country. The Wildcats won their first bowl game in school history, finishing No. 6 overall in the AP Poll in 1995.

After helping raise Kansas State from the ashes, Leavitt received offers to coach elsewhere left and right, including one from the NFL, but only one opportunity stood out to him: South Florida. The school offered him its first head football coaching job. Leavitt was sold.

So, on Dec. 30, 1995, a day after Kansas State’s Holiday Bowl win, Leavitt boarded a flight home and, at the same time, into uncharted territory.

‘Start football’

Leavitt spent 14 years at South Florida refining his craft for building programs. In this case, he started with nothing.

There were no facilities, no locker rooms, no uniforms, no goalposts and no helmets. The school’s inaugural football venture was lacking everything — except Leavitt.

His first meeting with school administrators took place in a deserted trailer — which would later become his office — that the New York Yankees had left from spring training months earlier.

Leavitt said he will never forget what athletic director Paul Griffin said to him that day.

“Paul looks at me and says, ‘Start football,’ ” Leavitt said.

It took him exactly 10 years and 10 days to get the Bulls from their first game to a top-25 team. In 2007, the Bulls peaked at No. 2 in the country.

From 2005 to 2009, Leavitt’s final year at USF, the Bulls had a top-30 defense for four of those years and appeared in five bowl games, winning three of them. Leavitt recruited current NFL players Jason Pierre-Paul, Nate Allen and George Selvie.

Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt passes the ball to linebacker La’Mar Winston Jr. (32). The Oregon Ducks practice at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex in Eugene, Ore. on Tuesday April 25, 2017. (Phillip Quinn/Emerald)

Yet, for all he did at South Florida, his unexpected departure in 2010 marred his success on the field.

A player accused Leavitt of striking a player at halftime of a midseason game. USF fired Leavitt after administrators concluded that he interfered with their investigation of the incident by telling players to change their stories of the incident.

To this day, Leavitt insists he did nothing wrong — and thinks USF fired him so it wouldn’t have to pay the remainder of his $12.6 million contract. Leavitt said he also thinks part of the motivation was because he hadn’t yet brought a national championship to South Florida.

“I know the story,” Leavitt said. “I know I didn’t do anything wrong.”

After his termination, Leavitt filed a wrongful termination suit against the school and spent a year away from football fighting his case. USF settled to the tune of $2.75 million dollars.

Leavitt wanted to be clear that he wasn’t after a big payout but wanted to get the amount of money high enough to prove to people that “there might be another side to his story.”

USF President Judy Genshaft, through a secretary, declined to comment.

Life after USF

In Leavitt’s eyes, the sudden departure actually proved to be beneficial.

Leavitt became the linebackers coach with the San Francisco 49ers in 2010 and helped install the stifling defense that led them to three NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl over his tenure.

“He’s actually been one of the great position coaches I’ve ever had in my tenure in the NFL,” said linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a seven-year NFL veteran.

And when the 49ers parted ways with Jim Harbaugh in 2014, Leavitt and the rest of the staff departed as well.

Leavitt then took the defensive coordinator job at Colorado. In two seasons, Leavitt transformed the Buffs’ defense from the 112th nationally to 24th.

“The energy and passion he brought to the defense really changed the culture we had,” Rick Gamboa, a sophomore linebacker at Colorado said. “We had a lot of talent, but he was definitely the missing piece for us.”

“If we play good defense here, we’ll tell a great story.” — Jim Leavitt

Once again, other schools came calling. While Leavitt didn’t name specific suitors, he said schools from the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 offered him jobs.

But when freshly-hired Willie Taggart called, Leavitt knew it was the right fit.

“I had a previous relationship with him,” Leavitt said of Taggart. “But also, I loved Oregon. … I wanted to go somewhere you could push for championships.”

Taggart said Leavitt’s credentials fit the bill.

“I think we all saw what he was able to do at Colorado,” Taggart said. “When you watch them, it’s not like they had the most talented guys. But they played hard and they made plays by playing hard and they believed in each other. And that’s what you want as a defense coordinator.”

A New Task in Eugene

Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt directs players during a drill. The Oregon Ducks host an open practice during their spring season at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex practice fields in Eugene, Ore. on Saturday, April 8, 2017. (Adam Eberhardt/Emerald)

Since his arrival on campus, Leavitt has already made a loud first impression.

“Coach Leavitt is a psycho,” Oregon offensive lineman Doug Brenner said with a smile. “And we love it. He’s drinking Pepsi and screaming at 6 a.m. and doing laps on the field. It’s great.”

At practice, he’s sometimes more active than his players. He never stops moving or talking. He challenges his players to counter his energy.

“You got to match it,” Oregon linebacker Troy Dye said. “It’s hard to do because he’s always on go-mode.”

His players say his passion for Pepsi is the only thing that rivals his passion for football, even dating back to the NFL.

“Anytime he got a Pepsi, you’re definitely going to get the full Jim Leavitt,” Bowman said.

Leavitt, who will earn $1.15 million a year, understood the project he inherited in Eugene. Coaching turnover — three defensive coordinators in the last three years — has left things out of sorts.

He knows the rebuilding will take time. “Nothing is easy,” he said.

And it may take a few hundred cans of Pepsi as well.

Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story had the incorrect year for Leavitt’s arrival at Kansas State. It was 1989, not 1995. 

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Gus Morris

Gus Morris

Gus Morris covers Oregon football, basketball and women's golf for the Emerald. Caffeine addict. Bay Area sports. I know words, I have the best words.