As longtime USF football fan Michael Stuben sat in the bleachers at Byrd Stadium in College Park, Maryland in September 2015, he had a momentary lapse of faith.
“What the hell am I doing with my life?” Stuben said to a fan next to him as he watched the Bulls fall to 1-3 in a 35-17 defeat.
USF, which went on to win seven of its final nine games, restored Stuben’s hope, but has yet to win back the entirety of the Tampa Bay community.
Bulls coach Willie Taggart began the “Kickoff with Coach Taggart” tour Tuesday at Top Golf in Brandon in an attempt to rebuild USF’s fan support.
Despite losing only one home game and recording its first winning season under Taggart, USF’s average attendance dropped by over 4,000 fans per game from 2014.
Taggart made it clear to the sold-out crowd of roughly 100 that a lack of fan support is the biggest obstacle facing the Bulls as they hope to build off their 8-5 season.
“When Lee Roy Selmon and USF President (Betty) Castor had a vision for this program, I think it started with this community,” Taggart said. “This community got behind this football program and it got going. We built something special and it happened fast.
“I think their vision was for this community. We don’t have a lot of traditions, we’re young so we can’t rely on that. We have to rely on this community to get behind us. Whether you graduated from Florida or Florida State, you live here in the Bay area. You can graduate and love those teams, but you can love the Bulls too.”
Taggart focused on the late-season success of his team in 2015, saying his team “served notice they were a team to be reckoned with,” but emphasized the success can’t continue if the fans don’t buy in.
While Taggart and the Bulls haven’t seen the fruits of their labor just yet, fans like Stuben are already seeing the change in culture surrounding the team.
“Having gone through a couple of lean years the past few years under coach Holtz and then the first couple years under coach Taggart, you still go and have fun at the game,” Stuben said. “It’s still a football game, by God you better be out there having some fun. But at the same time, it sure is a lot more fun to be out there when we’re winning.
“It was a great thing when they were able to flip that switch midway through the year and go from a team that didn’t look like they were together to this incredible offensive machine. It just adds so much to the fun of being there.”
Taggart, who will make three other stops around the Bay area on his June tour, said the fans don’t yet know the role they play when it comes to the Bulls’ success, but he intends to educate them.
“No they don’t (understand how important they are),” Taggart said. “Sometimes they get ticked, they think we don’t really care, but we do care and it makes a difference.
“I think the average fan is starting to realize now what’s going on here and it’s easier to get behind it. But it just can’t happen like that, it takes everybody to make it happen. I know one thing about the Bay area: they love winners, they love big time. And we’re going to be big time here.”