When USF announced the forthcoming departure of Athletic Director Doug Woolard and the search for his replacement Jan. 16, ESPN.com reported it was due to “wide-ranging dissatisfaction” with Bulls football and men’s basketball teams.
As a new athletic director is ushered in during the coming months, speculation about the future leadership of USF’s football and men’s basketball, is bound to surface from fans and media.
With a new leader of an athletics department comes new ideas, new goals and new ways to go about reaching them. Often, these include new coaches to lead the university’s struggling programs, and at the very least, an extensive review of the operation.
USF football started a new phase with coach Willie Taggart in December 2012, starting off with a 2-10 record. Despite this, Taggart and his staff have managed to gather the third-best recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) so far, according to ESPN.
For now, attention is likely to be turned toward the longer-tenured of USF’s two major sports coaches – men’s basketball coach Stan Heath.
Heath took over USF’s program in 2007 and has compiled a 95-120 record. He signed a contract extension in July 2012 after USF’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years that runs through the 2017-18 season.
One would think USF was headed in a definitively positive direction after the NCAA Tournament appearance, especially since junior point guard Anthony Collins navigated a squad full of upperclassmen with over five assists per game in his freshman season and returned for his sophomore campaign.
Since that tournament appearance, though, USF has gone 22-29 with a 12-19 record last season and a 10-10 mark so far this season.
In addition to veterans Collins and senior forward Victor Rudd returning for the 2013-14 year, Heath added, arguably, his best recruiting class in his time at USF, headlined by freshmen big men John Egbunu and Chris Perry, two ESPN top 100 high school players
Both freshmen have shown to be the real deal, with Egbunu tied for the team lead in rebounds at 6.9 per game and Perry the third-leading scorer with 9.1 per game.
With the addition of Egbunu and Perry, along with junior transfer guard Corey Allen Jr., USF’s second-leading scorer, some players, like Rudd, said in October that they had a shot at participating in March Madness again.
But the Bulls also came into the season with questions about Collins’ health.
After sitting out the first two games, he debuted in the third game of the year and played in eight contests while battling soreness and tendonitis, which stemmed from offseason knee surgery.
USF is 6-2 with Collins in the lineup. However, the Bulls haven’t won consecutive games since December’s four game streak, before Collins was forced to rest his knee again after the Dec. 19 win over Florida A&M.
It’s clear the Bulls can’t win consistently without Collins, and after an 86-47 loss to Louisville, Heath admitted he thought about how USF would fare with Collins in the lineup.
“These are the cards we were dealt,” Heath said. “But I’d like to see where we’d be with AC in the lineup.”
Without Collins, the Bulls are 4-8 this season and now in the midst of their longest losing streak of the year. USF lost to SMU, No. 13 Cincinnati, No. 12 Louisville and No. 22 Memphis by an average of roughly 21 points.
With, arguably, USF’s most valuable player walking around with a sore knee and two talented, but sometimes inconsistent, freshman eating a chunk of playing time, a dismissal of Heath would be unfair unless USF doesn’t win the rest of the year.
Detractors of Heath’s track record should recall that it’s always difficult for men’s basketball to be successful at USF. Before Heath, USF’s last 20-win season was in 1989-90, in addition to the 20-year NCAA Tournament drought.
In his career as a head coach, Heath’s teams have made the NCAA Tournament four times in 12 seasons, but three of those times came from Kent State and Arkansas, where he served his first six years as a head coach.
With a presumably healthy Collins next season, and a year’s experience under the belts of Egbunu and Perry, USF has an even better shot at a postseason run.
USF will lose one senior, Rudd, who plays more than 25 minutes a game. Rudd has been USF’s leading scorer since 2012. Though the loss of Rudd won’t be a big one for USF next season, at least on the offensive end, because Rudd hasn’t led the Bulls to a winning record.
Collins is the most important player to USF’s success and without him on the court, everything seems to be going wrong for the Bulls.
But if there’s an outside factor that helps USF’s chances next season, it’s the departure of Louisville to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The loss of Louisville from the AAC leaves a perennial spot at the top of the league open for any squad ready to take that next step.
Since Rick Pitino took over the Cardinals program in 2001, he’s 327-114, and the Cardinals haven’t had less than a 20-win mark since Pitino’s first season.
One may argue that if Pitino can do it year after year, Heath can too.
However, Pitino is a Basketball Hall of Fame coach and Louisville is a prestigious program with 39 NCAA Tournament appearances, while USF made it twice in 25 years.
Outside of Louisville, Memphis and Cincinnati are the only two schools ranked in the top 25 currently, and the departure of a perennial powerhouse gives USF a legitimate shot at 20-plus wins and the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Collins, however, has to be healthy.