In two years, Jim Leavitt turned Colorado from one of the worst defenses in the country to one of the best.
Now it appears he will try to do the same at Oregon.
Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports has reported that Leavitt has accepted a four-year deal to leave the Buffs and become the defensive coordinator at Oregon.
On Wednesday evening, Leavitt tweeted: “I love CU, players, Boulder and all alum! Been great to me! Couldn’t pass up opportunity for family! South Champs! Been a great ride!!”
According to Feldman, Leavitt’s deal with Oregon is “believed to make him the highest-paid coordinator in Pac-12 history at any public institution.” If true, that would mean Leavitt was offered a significant raise from the roughly $512,000 annual salary he collected at CU. Leavitt is the highest paid assistant coach in CU history.
Leavitt has one year remaining on the three-year contract he signed when hired by CU in February of 2015. Per the terms of the contract, Leavitt would owe CU $50,000 in liquidated damages for terminating his deal prior to Dec. 31.
CU has not confirmed Leavitt’s departure and a spokesman from the school said that as of Wednesday afternoon, Leavitt had not informed the school he’s leaving.
On Wednesday night, CU sports information director David Plati said in an email that CU is aware of Leavitt’s tweet and that, “Coach (Mike) MacIntyre has told me he’d comment tomorrow.”
On Twitter, CU players weighed in on the news.
Quarterback Sefo Liufau tweeted: “Surprised by the announcement, but thankful for what @CoachJimLeavitt has done for the program. Good luck in the future coach.”
Around the time of the report, linebacker Addison Gillam tweeted: “Hate this business.”
“can’t wait to play Oregon again,” receiver Bryce Bobo said on Twitter.
Unless it’s in the Pac-12 championship game, the Buffs won’t see the Ducks in 2017 or 2018.
CU hired Leavitt as defensive coordinator to turn around a defense that, in 2014, ranked 114th nationally in yards allowed (461.0 per game) and 119th in points allowed (39.0 per game).
During Leavitt’s first season with the Buffs, in 2015, the defense made a dramatic improvement to 85th in average yards allowed (416.9) and 70th in scoring (27.5).
This season, CU ranked 17th nationally in yards allowed (328.3) and 18th in scoring defense (20.5).
The CU defense was one of the best in the Pac-12 this season and one of the main reasons the Buffs went 10-3, won the Pac-12 South and played in the conference title game. The Buffs will play Oklahoma State in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29.
Linebackers Jimmie Gilbert and Kenneth Olugbude and safety Tedric Thompson have all earned various All-America honors this month, while cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon have also earned All-Pac-12 honors.
Oregon (4-8, 2-7 Pac-12) is coming off its worst season in years, and fired head coach Mark Helfrich after the season.
Last week, the Ducks hired Willie Taggart as their new head coach after Taggart spent the past four years as the head coach at South Florida. Leavitt, the head coach at South Florida from 1996-2009, now appears to be charged with helping Taggart succeed in Eugene.
After ranking 116th in scoring defense in 2015, Oregon was 126th – out of 128 teams – this season, allowing 41.4 points per game. The Ducks were also 126th in total defense, yielding 518.4 yards per game.
If Leavitt does leave, it’s unclear who would coach the CU defense during the Alamo Bowl. Safeties coach Joe Tumpkin would seem to be the natural choice to do so. Tumpkin was hired at CU in February of 2015 after spending the previous five years as the defensive coordinator at Central Michigan.
As for the future, the Buffs have a stellar list of recruits committed to sign in February, including several top-notch defenders.
One of those, linebacker Jonathan Van Diest from Cherry Creek High School, said he was surprised and disappointed to hear of Leavitt’s departure.
“I know a lot of us that are going in were really excited to work with coach Leavitt and be part of his program and defense,” Van Diest said.
“It sucks for us a lot, but that’s part of the business. Sometimes there’s good parts and sometime there’s not. (The recruits) understand this happens, and we’re ready to play and ready to put our work in and play at the same level and even better than the team played this year.”
Van Diest said Leavitt leaving would not impact his decision to sign with the Buffs.
“I’m with the Buffs 100 percent and that doesn’t change how I think or feel about the school or the program whatsoever,” he said.
Although the reports were still fresh late Wednesday afternoon, Van Diest said several of the 2017 commits had already talked about the news.
“We’re all pretty surprised and a little bit upset, but there’s that optimistic turnaround outlook that him leaving doesn’t affect how we feel about the program,” Van Diest said. “We’re committed to it and we’re going to play the way we’re going to play with or without him.
“CU’s smart. They’ve made a huge turnaround and it’s not all just because of Jim Leavitt. It’s been a huge effort and they’ll keep working to make it stay where it’s supposed to be and will be.”