A Glimmer of Hope …

There’s a line from one of my favorite sports movies, Hoosiers, which came to me yesterday as the hiring of Jim Leavitt and Joe Tumpkin were announced.

The quotable quote came from Opal Fleener, the old but wise mother of Myra Fleener, coach Norman Dale’s love interest in the movie. Upon meeting the embattled coach for the first time, Opal tells Gene Hackman’s character:

“Sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass everyday, but mister, you ain’t seen a ray of light since you got here”.

It’s been a long stretch of gloomy days for the Buff Nation, but on February 5, 2015, the sun shone down upon the Dal Ward Center. The hiring of Jim Leavitt and Joe Tumpkin (an excellent hire, though over-shadowed by the Leavitt announcement) gave Colorado fans a little dose of something which has been handed out with an eye-dropper for the better part of a decade …


Hope that the CU administration is willing to continue to put its money where its mouths is, and pony up for facilities and coaches which will make the program competitive.

Hope that the much-maligned Buff defense can go from being a bend-but-don’t-break (at least not until the second half) unit to an aggressive, coordinated machine which can generate sacks and turnovers, dictating play rather than just trying to hang on for dear life.

Hope that winning seasons and bowl bids are no longer illusory dreams, but realistic expectations.

After almost two months of hand-wringing and angst as the search for CU’s new defensive coordinator dragged on and on, athletic director Rick George and head coach Mike MacIntyre answered their critics will a home-run hire.

Jim Leavitt not only has the respect of his peers and players, Leavitt’s resume seems to be tailor-fit for what Colorado needs.

Leavitt was the co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State from 1991-95. For those too young to remember, Kansas State before the arrival of Bill Synder and his coaches was not even a blip on the college football radar.

The Wildcats were not just bad. Not just historically bad.

Kansas State was the absolute worst program in college football.

From 1937 to 1990, a span of 54 seasons, Kansas State had exactly four winning campaigns – four. In the majority of the 50 losing seasons during that span (27, in fact), the “Mildcats” lost at least eight games (with many of those seasons consisting of only nine or ten games). When Snyder showed up in Manhattan, Kansas State had been unsuccessfully attempting to post program victory No. 300 … for 27 straight games.

In 1991, Jim Leavitt’s first season as co-defensive coordinator, Kansas State went 7-4. The following year, the Wildcats went 5-6, but then went 9-2-1, 9-3, and 10-2 between 1992-95, going to three straight bowl games … the second, third and fourth bowl games in school history.

Leavitt then left Manhattan, Kansas, for Tampa, Florida, to take over a program in worse shape than Kansas State had been.

And that was only because he took over a program which didn’t yet exist.

The University of South Florida in Tampa had a large enrollment (larger than that of the University of Colorado, in fact), but USF was mainly a commuter school, and was a school without a football program.

Jim Leavitt took on the challenge, ready to take on football powers Florida State, Miami and Florida. “I graduated from high school in 1974,” Leavitt said when he was hired to establish a program for USF. “In 1974, they weren’t very good, they weren’t very strong. But over the years they built three awfully good programs. You have to win, that’s all there is to it”.

Operating under the slogan, “We Don’t Follow Tradition, We Create It”, Leavitt led South Florida into the world of college football as a 1-AA independent in 1997. The very first game with Leavitt as head coach, the Bulls played Kentucky Wesleyan … and lost 80-3.

USF quickly recovered, though, going 5-6 in its inaugural season. The next three seasons, as a 1-AA independent, the Bulls went 8-3, 7-4, and 7-4. Jumping to 1-A in 2001, and still playing as an independent, USF went 8-3 in 2001 and 9-2 in 2002 (losing only to Arkansas and Oklahoma). After two seasons as a member of Conference USA, South Florida made the jump to the Big East Conference in 2005, qualifying for a bowl game in each of the five seasons Leavitt was the Bulls’ head coach as a member of that BCS Conference.

How did Leavitt build a program in the shadow of three nationally ranked in-state schools? “They’ve won national championships; they’ve won conference championships”, said Leavitt when asked about how he recruited players to come to South Florida instead of powers FSU, Miami, and Florida. “We hit them with ‘opportunity’: Be a part of history, go where no man has gone before”.

Cliché? Hackneyed?


But it just that type of attitude and passion which can help bring about change at the University of Colorado.

Still not sold?

Then listen to some of the rave reviews Leavitt has received over the years …

This from a former player at South Florida:

“We loved him, and we knew he loved us. If we needed him at 1 am in the morning, we knew he’d be there for us. He was the kind of guy that you’d go to battle for because you knew he’d battle for you … he was the first coach I had that would get out there and run gassers with us … He was a good teacher and he showed us to teach us … Leavitt hit on two things I believe are most important in a coach. A coach should be a great teacher and should be someone you want to play for”.

Or this from a San Francisco 49er, where Leavitt has been the linebackers coach for the past four seasons:

“I love Jim Leavitt. He reminds me of my high school coach in a way. He never lets you have a day off. Even if you aren’t feeling good, he finds a way to make you smile …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”.

So what type of defensive schemes will Leavitt bring to Colorado?

A fan site for the Oklahoma Sooners, lobbying for Leavitt when it appeared that the Sooners would be in the market for a defensive coordinator (OU settled on keeping Mike Stoops as co-defensive coordinator, promoting defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery to co-defensive coordinator), had this to say abut Leavitt’s style of coaching:

“Coach Leavitt come’s from a 4-3 background, but having coached in San Francisco under Harbaugh, he’s also well versed in the 3-4 … His former player I spoke with gave me a few notes about the defensive he played in under Leavitt at South Florida. ‘We were aggressive, we flew around, and we had a lot of fun’. In talking about his position group (defensive back) he said, ‘we did one-on-one’s every practice…it was a battle everyday…we played guys head up…we were always competing and that’s the attitude he built…we were always battling and he used the word ‘battle’ a hundred times a day in practice’. I asked him about their coverages, and he said they were about 50-50 man/zone and primarily played out of a two high safety shell”.

Colorado has nine returning starters on defense, a solid base for Leavitt.

But that’s only the beginning.

The list of nine returning starters does not include the return of three former starters, defensive linemen Samson Kafovalu (out last season for personal issues) and Tyler Henington (torn ACL), along with safety Jered Bell (torn ACL, still waiting for confirmation on his sixth season of eligibility). You can also throw into the mix this spring four ready-to-play junior college defensive players (defensive linemen Blake Robbins, Jordan Carrell and Leo Jackson III, together with defensive back Afolabi Laguda). And this is even before we get to the list of 2014 part-time starters – like defensive backs Yuri Wright, Evan White and Marques Mosley and defensive linemen Christian Shaver and Justin Solis.

Long story short … The cupboard is not bare for Leavitt and his fellow new hire, Joe Tumpkin, who will coach the safeties.

That being said, there is the stark reality that Colorado last season was 100th in the nation in passing defense, 102nd in rushing defense, 111th in total defense, and … hide the children … 116th in scoring defense.

Jim Leavitt has his work cut out for him. Colorado has not had a competitive defense since it joined the Pac-12, and the competition in the conference is not getting any weaker.

But, based upon what Leavitt did for a moribund program at Kansas State, together with what Leavitt did for a non-existent program at South Florida, the Buff Nation wakes up this morning with a smile on its collective face.

Basking in the glow of new-found hope.



5 Replies to “A Glimmer of Hope …”

  1. MM’s improvement on “O” started in the trenches. Same thing on “D”. The players returning, the redshirts and the JC recruits are primarily guys in the front seven who will be greatly assisted by Leavitt’s coaching, teaching and attitude. This staff is all about player development and Leavitt and Tumpkin fill that role to a T.

    Imagine a “D” where guys like Gilbert and Shaver are no longer inexperienced pups battling 300 lb+ Ols on every play, but LBs with size, experience and saavy.

    Can’t wait for spring ball to see how the “D” developmenttranspires.

  2. I am really intrigued at the potential of this defense now with leavitt in place. Between recruits and players returning from injuries and such, there is going to be some serious competition and depth both on the defensive line and in the secondary.

    I feel pretty good about what the offense is bringng back as well. However, even with Alex Kinney in the fold I am extremely worried about special teams. Who is going to kick? Neither Diego Gonzalez not Chris graham have looked anywhere near consistent enough to place kick or even kickoff (here’s betting Kinney does at least kick offs). As for the rest of the coverage and return units, as long as Toby neinas is in charge, or at least until they show any sort of consistency, I will remain skeptical.

  3. Thanks Stuart for all of the effort you put in.

    I do actually feel a glimmer of hope for the first time in many years. I was skeptically optimistic with the hiring of MacIntyre and George, but with this recruiting class and the new coaches, I do feel hope. I think next year’s team is going to look very different. I’m not sure how many wins, but they will look different. Go Buffs!

  4. Great article Stuart! On Wednesday I was moribund that a D coordinated had not been hired. What a turnaround in 48hrs. I’m fired up! Go Buffs!

  5. I have to admit, I had really thought the long time to name a DC was going to really water my expectations and excitement for next year. With this hire, MM has proved that he knows exactly what he is doing. I’m almost thinking this is an early April Fool’s joke, this next is that good!

    I have hope that next season is going to be really good. MM improved offense greatly in 2014, a like-improvement in defense for 2015 would be step-by-step, definitive progress that CU is on the right path.

    GO BUFFS!!!

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