October 4, 2007

Meet the driving force behind South Florida

The little guy was buzzing around the postgame gathering looking for something to keep him occupied. Kids are so impatient at this age.

"He understands what's going on," South Florida's Ben Mo_ tt said of his 4-year old son, Trevor. "I think he gets it."

The rest of college football does, too.

The state of Florida no longer is the Big three. South Florida, the fledgling program of a decade ago, has forced itself upon us. It has gone from the program housed in trailers when it started from scratch all the way to the blossoming Big East power that dotted the eye of heavyweight West Virginia yet again last week.

The Big three is now four strong. Little brother wants more, needs more.

"This is just the beginning," said Moffitt, the Bulls' tough-guy linebacker and the face of this program. "Why stop now?"

When it all began 11 years ago, when the first team meeting was underneath a shade tree because there were no facilities on campus , there was a glimmer of hope that this day would arrive. Now here we are.

A little more than a week ago, South Florida was ranked for the first time in school history. Five days later, the Bulls were suddenly ranked in the top 10 and anointed the Big East favorite. Not Louisville, not Rutgers and certainly not West Virginia, which can't figure out South Florida's speedy, stingy defense.

More than a decade ago, South Florida coach Jim Leavitt was a star defensive coordinator at Kansas State on the verge of picking and choosing the head coaching job he wanted. Instead, he chose the unknown of South Florida, a commuter school deep in the shadow of Florida, Florida State and Miami.

He has turned down job offers from Alabama and Kansas State and told anyone who would listen that South Florida would one day be on the same level as the three elite programs in the state. That day is now, and the reason is defense.

When Leavitt was recruiting Moffitt four years ago, the team was set to join the Big East and needed an anchor on defense, a player who encompassed Leavitt's philosophy to hit teams in the mouth first and then worry about offense.

Leavitt got a player who married in high school and had a child, who now has two kids and drives roughly 100 miles round trip every day to school. He got a player whom standout quarterback Matt Grothe calls his inspiration. Leavitt got a player who has never missed or been late to a team meeting and never missed a study hall.

And before that defining night against the Mountaineers, Moffitt had only one career interception. But he returned one for a touchdown, and another pick stuffed a potential scoring drive.

And man, does Moffitt ever hit. West Virginia quarterback Pat White, the shiftiest, silkiest runner in college football, left midway through the game with a deep thigh bruise. No surprise it was after a hit from Moffitt, who moments after the victory sprinted toward the stands through the rush of fans storming the field.

There in the fourth row was Trevor. He plunked his helmet on his son's small head, grabbed his hand and walked toward the tunnel. Nearly 90 minutes later, he grabbed Trevor's hand again and walked out of the stadium.

"Long ride home," Ben Moffitt said.

The road has never looked better.


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