Jim Leavitt – The Eagles Defensive Coordinator Candidate Lurking in the Shadows

by Jerome's Friend

At the end of Chip Kelly’s first season as the University of Oregon’s offensive coordinator, he found himself standing on a Sun Bowl sideline in El Paso, Texas.  For a moment he scratched his head.  This South Florida team is pesky.  Oregon had opened the scoring in the first quarter when QB Justin Roper, filling in for injured star QB Dennis Dixon, threw a seven yard touchdown pass to Garren Strong and converted on a two-point conversion.  Kelly set the tone.  But the Bulls wouldn’t go away.  Their defense was good.  After the teams traded field goals, South Florida QB Matt Grothe orchestrated a drive that resulted in a touchdown, then tossed a pass to convert the Bulls’ own two-point conversion, tying the game at 11 midway through the second quarter.  It was a gutsy move by the South Florida coach.  But, Lot of game left, Kelly thought…

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The Philadelphia media have followed meticulously both the Eagles head coach search and the subsequent hiring of Chip Kelly’s coaching staff.  It’s been a frustrating search for fans because of Kelly’s refusal to announce his staff until it is complete.  This has led to a lot of conjecture, assumption, and speculation.   By all accounts, the highest profile position that needs to be filled on Kelly’s staff remains defensive coordinator, a position linked at one time to University of Georgia DC Todd Grantham, and most recently to San Francisco 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell and Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino.  Grantham’s name has since been removed, but reports indicate that the Eagles have waited this long to hire a DC because, like Donatell and Monachino, he currently resides on a staff playing in the Super Bowl.  But judging by the frequency of erroneous reports surrounding Chip Kelly’s hire, and given the Eagles’ current cloak of silence, the media may have missed a coaching candidate or two.  And if we have learned anything during this whole process, it’s that the Eagles have a proclivity for surprises.  It’s quite possible then, that there is a yet-to-be known defensive coordinator candidate on a current Super Bowl team lurking in the media-cast shadows, and if there is, his name is Jim Leavitt.

The 2007 Sun Bowl matchup between Oregon and South Florida may represent the first meeting between Leavitt and Chip Kelly.  At the time, Leavitt was the head coach of a South Florida team that didn’t even exist ten years prior.  Kelly’s offense eventually adjusted to Leavitt’s defensive scheme, overpowering South Florida on its way to a 56-21 victory.  But Leavitt made an impact on Kelly that day.  Kelly has said that he wants smart people on his staff, the right people, and Jim Leavitt has since demonstrated that he is smart, and might be right.  He is credited with not only building an NCAA Division I-A (FBS) football program from scratch, but also fielding a competitive team with a quickness envied by more established, floundering schools.  South Florida began playing in division I-AA in 1997 and finished the season with five wins and six losses, amazingly the only year aside from 2004 in which the Bulls finished with a losing record.  After four seasons in I-AA, South Florida jumped to I-A in 2001, playing as an Independent for two years before becoming a member of Conference USA.  Then in 2005, South Florida moved to the Big East, where they played in six consecutive Bowl games until Leavitt’s departure for the NFL in 2010.

Leavitt is a defensive coach.  Under his reign, South Florida’s defense was often ranked as one of the top 25 defenses in college football.  But before leading South Florida, Leavitt was defensive coordinator at Kansas State, where he is credited with developing one of the top five defenses in the country, if not the best.  During the 1995 season, Leavitt’s squad recorded three consecutive shutouts en route to a ten-win season and a victory in the Holiday Bowl over Colorado State.   Today, Leavitt has for two years overseen the fearful linebacker corps for the San Francisco 49ers, a unit that includes Patrick Willis (120 tackles), Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks), and NaVorro Bowman, the third year player from Penn State who leads the team in tackles.

However, despite his successes, Leavitt does not come without baggage.  His departure from South Florida was rather unceremonious.  In 2010 Leavitt was fired for an incident during halftime of a 2009 game against Louisville in which he was accused of striking a player.  Leavitt claimed he was consoling the player, but South Florida officials found that he may have been lying.  Leavitt was given several opportunities to admit to what actually happened, but stuck to his story.  He was eventually fired, not for the incident itself, but primarily for the manner in which he handled it afterwards.  So the question becomes, does this black mark on his resume overshadow his college and NFL successes?  Leavitt has otherwise established that he has the rising-star potential the Eagles seem to covet, the intelligence that Kelly desires in an NFL defensive coordinator, and perhaps the passion and fire sought by Eagles fans on the defensive side of the ball.  At the very least Leavitt seems to be as intriguing a candidate as any other.  So it should be no surprise if he makes the transition from Eagles candidate to coach.

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