Before USF could have the identity crisis it’s dealing with now, it needed an identity to begin with.
The selection of names and symbols is an exhausting process, especially for the nation’s first new public university of the 20th century. The Florida Legislator Sam Gibbons managed to write the bill that made USF possible in just 80 words. That bill must still stand as the most concise piece of legislation ever written in Florida — or anywhere else. Choosing a name for the university Gibbons helped create consumed considerably more hot air.
Before USF had an identity, citizens and civic leaders statewide suggested some pretty awful titles for the upstart university. University of the Western Hemisphere sounded self-important and pretentious. Sunshine State, Tropicoast, and Citrus State University sounded like they were cooked up by members of a Chamber of Commerce. Governor LeRoy Collins infuriated some when he jokingly suggested University of Florida at Temple Terrace.
Then there were the geographical considerations. Tampa Bay College sounds fine today, but at the time, the Tampa Bay area was far from a cohesive metropolitan unit. Before the age of urban sprawl and interstates, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties seemed much farther from each other than they do today. These days, one can easily drive from St. Petersburg to Tampa without seeing so much as an empty lot. Tampa and St. Petersburg bitterly fought over the university like contestants on a reality television show. So much for solidarity in Tampa Bay.
Some people grumble that USF isn’t really in South Florida at all. However, Florida’s history tells a different story. As a frontier state until about the 1920s, what we know as South Florida remained inaccessible to common citizens. Tallahassee thrived as Florida’s capital because much of the Indians dominated the land to the south that swarmed with mosquitoes, gators and swamps. Deadly hurricanes devastated the region. The Everglades were seen more as a treacherous, impassable swamp than an environmental wonder. Miami was little more than an outpost until after World War II, known for bird plumes for ladies hats rather than beaches or ethnic enclaves. And that was before Miami/Dade seemed to secede from the Union and spin off into the Caribbean.
The geographical center of Florida is said to be just north of Brooksville, while the population center is slightly southeast of that point in 1957. So, in a semi-official way, USF is located in South Florida.
Any university south of Gainesville was a welcome addition, and many students from Miami continued their educations at USF. The proposed name University of Southwest Florida seemed awfully specific for the area, but some wanted to save the name for another proposed college that never sprouted.
It would have been a mistake to choose some of the other suggested names. Florida DeSoto University, Ponce de Leon University, or Gasparilla College would have drawn fire when the student body swung politically to the left in the late 1960s. Names of bloodthirsty conquistadores would have brought shame to the hippies, and most certainly would not have survived the sensitivities of the 1980s and ’90s. Gasparilla, the mythical pirate scoundrel who became the mascot of Tampa’s business elite early this century, may have fared better. However, a pirate’s plundering lifestyle would have drawn fire at some point when associated with a public university. As an underdog fighting against the odds, Seminole leader Osceola may have been a better choice, but it would have been the appropriation of a Native American’s name and image, and could have run into resistance by the Seminoles. Or the fledgling university might have simply paid the Seminoles for their symbols.
Naming the new university after more recent notables would have been a mistake as well. Collins College would have persisted long after the students forgot who the namesake was, LeRoy Collins, then-governor of Florida. Besides, there is something incestuous about naming a state’s public university after the governor. (Jeb Bush University, anyone?) Collins had an even higher profile than the names of some of the other candidates, such as Dan McCarty, Richard K. Call, Professor Ludwig W. Buchholz, and so on. Henry B. Plant University might have used a notable name, but he was a railroad magnate, not an educator or even a donor.
Then there were some plain old stupid names. How would you like to have Flamerica University printed on your degree? Excelsior University sounds more appropriate for stuffy England than for sunny Florida. Reviewing some of the names being considered in 1957 makes me relieved to be at the University of South Florida. It could have been Peninsula State University of Florida — need I say more?