Jim Leavitt’s road to the 49ers is remarkable to say the least. Not many in his profession spend 30 years coaching before becoming a rookie coach in the NFL, but that’s what Leavitt faces this upcoming season. Still, the respected teacher brings plenty to the 49ers. Leavitt built a successful Division-I program and learned from some of football’s greatest minds all while utilizing his sports psychology background to best relate to his players.
WHEN YOU see a big smile on the face of Jim Leavitt, it’s sincere. The 49ers linebackers coach can’t help himself really. As a native of Tampa, Fla., who spent 13 seasons prior to last year as the University of South Florida’s head football coach, Leavitt wakes up every morning feeling completely invigorated. “I used to say at South Florida, ‘Another day in paradise…’ Little did I know, I was lying,” says the 54-year-old coach with a grin. “This area out here, we have a place in Los Gatos, I’ve never seen anywhere more beautiful in my life.”
Along with wife Jody, the Leavitts enjoy the lack of humidity in the Bay Area that goes with the pleasant scenery. Admittedly, it’s not overwhelming Jim’s responsibility to the 49ers coaching staff; his passion for the game remains. “Wherever you live, you’re in the room watching film,” says Leavitt. “That doesn’t change much. But it’s nice being around this type of place.” After being hired by the 49ers in mid-January, Leavitt has made a habit of visiting the surrounding parts of Northern California. And with each new encounter (like day trips with Jody to Carmel, Napa and Monterrey Bay), Leavitt is reminded of the additional benefits from his decision to work in the NFL.
TRUTHFULLY TOLD, Leavitt would rather be playing football than coaching it. After hearing him talk about the game, it’s completely understandable. When you love football as much as Leavitt and crave physical exertion like the former Missouri defensive back does, it’s certainly within reason. “If I can play today, I wouldn’t coach,” says Leavitt. “Coaching’s the next best thing.” His passion for the game developed while growing up in Florida. It never went away.
So passionate, Leavitt changed positions at the drop of a hat. “When I went to Missouri, I went as a quarterback,” he explains. “When they asked me to move to defensive back, I said, ‘Yes sir, whatever you want me to do is great.’ I was just happy they knew my name.” Leavitt grew closer with the coaching staff and was later offered a position as a graduate assistant. Leavitt worked with the linebackers in 1978, “and that ended up being my niche,” he says.
Leavitt worked in that role for a few seasons before moving on to be the defensive coordinator at the University of Dubuque (D-III) for nine seasons. Though he remained close to football, Leavitt also had interests away from the game, education being most prominent. When he wasn’t coaching, Leavitt worked on a PHD in sports psychology within the 10-year window allowed to pursue the degree. And as it got closer to the deadline to graduate, Leavitt had to decide between coaching and finishing his schoolwork.
Leavitt elected to take a year off to attend the University of Iowa so he could earn his degree. At that time, Leavitt had finished his doctoral comps and had begun writing his dissertation when legendary Hawkeyes head coach Hayden Fry approached him about becoming a graduate assistant. “I was 34-years-old and I said, ‘Yes sir,’” recalls Leavitt of his life-changing decision.
It soon paid off. Within one season, Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder offered Leavitt a position coaching linebackers. He accepted immediately, much to the chagrin of Iowa’s faculty. “I had a committee of five that weren’t really happy with me, but I don’t have any regrets,” says Leavitt.
HIS EDUCATIONAL background combined with his athletic experiences made Leavitt a great fit for coaching. “As I became a position coach and as I got into it – I grew to love it,” he says. In total, Leavitt spent six years on Snyder’s staff in the roles of linebackers coach for two seasons and then as co-defensive coordinator with current Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops.
Leavitt’s experiences at Kansas State satisfied his passion for the game, but he also wanted a greater challenge. That break would come close to home, when South Florida created a football program and was in need of a coach. At the time, Leavitt had an offer to coach in the NFL on Vince Tobin’s Arizona Cardinals staff, but he declined the offer in favor of the head coaching opportunity.
“It was a great experience,” says Leavitt of his 13-year run at USF where he guided the Bulls to a 95-57 record. “When we started out, we didn’t have any practice fields. We had no offices. We didn’t have uniforms. We didn’t have helmets – but we didn’t need any of those because we didn’t have any players. We didn’t have any sprinklers to water the grass. No washing machines, no dryers, nothing. It was a great challenge and I had grown up there so it was a unique situation. How many times do people get to go back home where they grow up to do something they love to do? We had great success because we had great people. It wasn’t going to be Jim Leavitt, who built South Florida; it was a lot of people working together in a great way.”
Leavitt oversaw the program’s transformation from Division I-AA status, to its rise through the Independent and Conference USA leagues, to its current standing as one of the top teams in the Big East Conference. Leavitt also guided USF to five bowl appearances, and had the Bulls ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation during the 2007 season. “It’s a great story,” says Leavitt. “When you have the right people, and you have people who come together to have the right vision, you can do anything. It’s not about the buildings. It’s not about those types of things. It’s about people and their character and their heart and their drive. That’s really the key.” Leavitt parted ways with the program before the 2010 season, leaving him away from the game for the first time since his journey to Iowa to pursue his PHD. However, he didn’t stay away from football for too long.
BRIGHT AND early for most of 2010, Leavitt watched film with two other ex-coaches in the Tampa area, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach John Gruden and an experienced NFL defensive coach Rick Venturi. Leavitt caught up with Gruden, the “early riser” at around 4 a.m. on most days to watch pro and college film. The experiences were all beneficial. It gave Leavitt exposure to the nation’s top linebackers as well as defensive concepts used in the NFL.
Leavitt utilized that knowledge in his new position with the 49ers when he became the team’s linebackers coach. The relationship between Leavitt and the 49ers was formed as a result from his other activities in his year away from coaching. Leavitt spent time instructing at various Under Armour camps in addition to visiting various college programs. One of those schools was Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford program. Leavitt was quite familiar with Harbaugh, having coached against his father Jack Harbaugh for many years at USF. So when Harbaugh agreed to coach the 49ers, Leavitt wasn’t far behind in joining him.
“His demeanor was what I appreciated,” says Leavitt of his new boss. “I could tell this guy had passion for the game, that he was a fiery guy, he’s a grinder and I like that. I like being around that. When he and (49ers general manager) Trent (Baalke) gave me the opportunity to come here, I jumped at it just to be around that type of environment.” Leavitt was also reminded of his decision to turn down Tobin in 1997. He didn’t want to bypass the NFL again.
AT THE 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, Leavitt’s knowledge of collegiate players paid dividends when leading linebacker drills on the field of Lucas Oil Stadium. The coach instantly felt right back at home, smiling for everyone to see. “I was so excited to be on the field,” recalls Leavitt. “I was shaking their hands saying, ‘Great job.’ The other coaches were saying I was taking too much time, but I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? They did a great job – I have to tell them!’”
The 49ers eventually selected
“He is so athletic. His upside is tremendous,” says Leavitt. “I mean, how many times do you find a guy with that type of range? That can run the way he runs and has natural pass rushing skills? That has played three-technique? That has dropped a little bit? I think our scouting department did a great job of seeing all that. It’s not about what he is today… but his future has a chance to be tremendous.”
GENERALLY SPEAKING, the 49ers linebackers have a bright future under Leavitt’s direction. Not only is he pleased to work with Smith and help his career, Leavitt says all the linebackers are great young men who have performed well in the past. Four-time Pro Bowler
Leavitt’s background in sports psychology allows him to form strong associations with his players. “I think it relates,” he says. “All the relationships with the players, the interactions, it all comes together somehow. I enjoyed the world of academia so much that I did enjoy that part of it. And that’s what coaching is, you got to be a great teacher. If you can relate and get your ideas across to players where they understand, they can take the theory and make it practical, then it all works.”
YOU CAN never stop learning in the coaching profession. One of the positive aspects of the NFL’s current work stoppage is the extra time the coaching staff has spent together. In Leavitt’s case, it’s allowed him more time to work closely with coordinator Vic Fangio and the rest of the defensive staff. “They’ve all been great on the defensive side helping me to learn the verbiage and just getting on the same page,” says Leavitt. “It’s really been a great experience so far.”
Likewise, Fangio has appreciated what Leavitt brings to the table. “Jim Leavitt is a guy who I had no prior association with,” says Fangio. “Jim Harbaugh knew him through college football and Jim Harbaugh had a lot of respect for Jim Leavitt and wanted him on the staff and that was good enough for me.” Now that they’ve been collaborating for more than four months, Fangio has thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “He’s a great football coach, a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience. He’ll bring a great deal of enthusiasm to our linebackers.”