Sports: The real popularity contest

Believe it or not, there was a time when football didn’t exist at South Florida.

In only its fifth season, the football program has been here longer than most current students. Plugging away on the 10-year academic plan, I’m not one of those – but I am the exception, not the rule.

While not exactly a national powerhouse, the basketball program was always the closest thing USF had to a marquee sport.

And though I haven’t been here long enough to recall the last NCAA Tournament appearance (1991-92) by the basketball team, the Bulls do have a pair of trips to the Big Dance and six more to the NIT to their credit. Despite only being a blip on the college radar, the basketball team was this school’s only real source of sports identity.

But all that may have changed this year.

I saw something very interesting the other day on, a popular message board frequented by Bulls fans – something that may be a sign of things to come.The site’s online poll raised the question, “Has football overtaken basketball as the most popular sport at USF?” And the answer wasn’t just a yes – it was a resounding, booming yes.

At press time, 75 percent of the people polled agreed the football program had surpassed the basketball team in popularity. While the online poll certainly doesn’t include every student on campus, it does speak volumes about the progress of Jim Leavitt’s program.

And to think, 10 short years ago, football was still a pipe dream for former president Betty Castor.

Imagine where the program will be 10 years from now.The football program has made great strides in an extremely short amount of time. They went on the road and shocked Pittsburgh, who defeated then-No. 12 Virginia Tech Saturday.

Should the Bulls win out, they would finish 8-3 in their first year of Division I-A football. As good as 8-3 sounds, the Bulls could have conceivably finished 10-1 after dropping last-second games to Northern Illinois and Memphis.

But don’t patronize Bulls players by telling them how good they played or how close they came in those two heartbreaking losses.They’re not listening.

What they’re doing is trying to subside the fire that burns in the collective belly of the team. Nearly every person I’ve talked to about the Bulls has at some point spoken about how they are not satisfied. How they have absolutely no interest in just being an adequate D-IA team.

And that type of attitude – one that oozes with the Bulls’ quest for respect – will be the building blocks for this program.

While the Bulls may not exactly be beating down the door to national prominence just yet, they are quickly approaching the porch. It will be sooner than later before South Florida takes their next step – a minor bowl appearance, competing consistently with Top 25 teams – and so on.

Sound crazy? So was the idea of football at USF 10 years ago.

Players currently in high school, who are the future of USF football, are taking notice. The Bulls are in the running for such top-notch prospects as receivers Dishon Platt of Punta Gorda and Brian Clark of Chamberlain. As USF gets higher-quality players, success follows, which is in turn followed by more blue-chippers. I know if I was a receiver or quarterback with the ability to play for the Bulls, you can bet I’d be giving South Florida a long, hard look. The chance to play for an offense that throws the ball 65 times a game? Are you kidding me?

And the tradition is mounting. Former players such as Chad Barnhardt, Billy Attix and Rafael Williams were on the sidelines for USF’s 45-6 Homecoming win against Houston.

Students six years ago didn’t have a team to root for, to identify with – but they do now. The Bulls’ fan base will grow, their exposure will increase and one hand will continue to wash the other. Tampa might not have the college-town atmosphere of Gainesville, but this area loves its football.

Fifteen years from now, when the Bulls prepare to kick off against the Gators in Raymond James Stadium, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

Who knows, at my current rate of academic progress, I might just still be here.

  • Brandon Wright covers football and can be reached at