Growing up in the bay area, coach Willie Taggart has been involved in Tampa football since before the Bulls made it their home in 1997.
From selling Cokes at Houlihan Stadium for some extra cash when the Buccaneers played there in the late ‘80s to knocking off a 5-0 USF team 31-24 as the quarterback of Western Kentucky in 1998, Taggart fondly remembers the packed stadiums and fun-loving atmosphere that Tampa has to offer.
Now, four years into his tenure as USF coach, Taggart still yearns to recapture the support that has since fallen by the wayside.
“It was pretty cool to see that first game and how packed the whole stadium was,” Taggart said. “Again, that’s proof that we can pack that place. That is proof, we just have to get them back, and we will.”
As is typical with nearly any fan base across the nation, support wavers from year to year based on little more than the on-field product.
From the tail end of former coach Skip Holtz’s tenure in 2011 through the 2015 season, that support took a turn for the worse.
At their peak, the Bulls were nationally ranked and packed the 65,890-seat Raymond James Stadium to its capacity four times from 2007-09.
However, it’s been nearly four years since USF’s last sellout, when No. 4 Florida State visited on Sept. 29, 2012.
The Bulls have failed to come close to a full stadium since, even electing to close off 300-level seating after a 4-8 season in 2014.
USF’s surge to an 8-5 record and a berth in the Miami Beach Bowl in the second-half of 2015 has helped the Bulls get back on the right track, but they’ve yet to recapture their fan base of old.
“For us, we have to control the things that we can, and that’s our attitude and our work ethic and the way we perform on the football field,” Taggart said. “That’s all we can control and all those other things will take care of itself. We can’t worry about who’s in the stands, it’s our job to go out and give them everything they came for so they can come back.”
After USF’s announced attendance dipped from an average of 30,694 per home game in 2014 to 26,522 the following season, the first two home games (36,267 average) show the support is returning — albeit slower than both USF and the Big 12 would like.
“If (attendance) is going to be a part of (joining the Big 12), I guess it’s really important,” Taggart said. “We’re going to get there slowly but surely, but we’re going to get there.”
Despite attendance trending in the right direction through the first two games of 2016, fans and alumni are still hesitant to buy in to the Bulls for the long haul.
USF’s 6-18 record over Taggart’s first two seasons caused a staggering drop off from 18,638 annual season tickets to 12,954 from the time he became head coach through the 2015 season.
Rather than touring the state to drum up support as he had done in years past, Taggart stuck to the bay area with his “Kickoff with Coach Taggart” tour in which the fourth-year coach implored supporters to help him on his quest to fill Raymond James Stadium once more.
“We want to get everyone around here to come out and support,” Taggart said at one of his four stops on June 7. “Lee Roy Selmon and President Castor had a vision for this program, and I think it started with this community. This community got behind this football program and it got going and we built it into something special and it happened fast.
“We don’t have a lot of tradition, 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 from there and love those teams, but you can love the Bulls too.”
Even with season ticket sales back on the rise — over 16,000 sold for the 2016 season — the Bulls still have a long way to go to reclaim the glory days of a sold-out crowd.
And despite the 20-minute hike to games, student support has been far from the issue for USF.
In Week 1 of 2016, 5,202 students came out to watch USF defeat Towson to open the season in impressive fashion with a 56-20 win.
On Saturday, when USF pummeled Northern Illinois University 48-17, over 7,200 were in attendance — the most since the Bulls’ sellout against FSU in 2012.
With the Seminoles set to return to Tampa for what is expected to be another packed house on Sept. 24, USF will have the audience it needs to give fans a reason to support the team again.
With just over 50,000 tickets already distributed or reserved for that game and a national audience on ABC, all eyes will be on the Bulls for the first time in years.
“We’re going to continue to build it each and every week,” Taggart said. “Ray Jay’s going to get packed each and every week, and we’re all going to party and have fun, and that’s how it should be.
We should just grow together, build it together, and great things will happen here in the bay. So come and show up and show out. We really, really appreciate it.”