Column: Bearing the burden

If you recall, last year’s edition of The Oracle basketball issue had a drawing of USF mascot Rocky the Bull on the cover, holding a basketball-shaped globe on his shoulders.

Maybe we should have replaced Rocky with women’s coach Jose Fernandez, since, last season, no one else in USF sports had a bigger burden to bear than the first-year coach. Thrust into the lead after the ouster of his former boss, Jerry Ann Winters, one week before the season opener, Fernandez couldn’t have known he was in for a season that was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.

Forget the 4-24 record. That only told half the story. Every game seemed like – and usually was – a countdown not just to the end of the contest, but to the next tragic event, too. Consider some of what the Bulls and their fans suffered through: the still ongoing racial discrimination lawsuits, a six-point half, an 11-game losing streak, Lindsey Smith’s second torn knee ligament … You get the picture.

Everything came to a head in the season finale at home vs. Marquette. The Bulls were already shorthanded because of three freshmen leaving the team early in the season, and they played without their only true point guard, Melissa Tape, because of a concussion two days earlier. Then Smith got injured, forcing the Bulls to play most of the game with a rotation of six players – not really a rotation when you think about it.

I tried to come up with a logical explanation for the Bulls’ plight, but try as I did, I couldn’t. So, I shrugged off the suggestion from one of my colleagues that the cause was the ghost of Jerry Ann Winters haunting the team for her wrongful dismissal (I wish I could remember who told me that), and I put it down to the fact that sometimes in life, bad things happen to good people, and maybe this was merely a rite of passage for Fernandez and the Bulls before they reach the promised land of wins and adoration.

That day might arrive sooner than expected. Despite last year’s gloom and doom, some good things happened that bode well for the near future. In playing every game full-bore to its (usually) bitter end, the Bulls – many of whom had to play 40 minutes out of necessity – displayed more dedication and heart than lots of other hoops teams, including some that play their home games in the Sun Dome.

And don’t forget the Bulls have the fourth-leading scorer in Conference USA. Yes, it’s true. Her name is Aiya Shepard, and she can fill up a box score on any given night. Last season, Shepard also led the league in steals per game and tumbles to the Sun Dome floor. She will almost certainly join USF’s pantheon of 1,000-point scorers this season, even if she doesn’t have to carry as much of the offensive load as she did last year.

Then there is the not-so-small matter of a recruiting class rated in the top 25 nationally. How Fernandez managed to sign five, top high school players (only four are here) in the midst of utter chaos and despair must rank as one of the great feats of recent time at USF. The newbies promise a level of athleticism and attitude that’s never been seen on a Bulls team.

The loss of forward Denetrice Stinson to a career-ending back injury and Smith’s injury-related departure might be stumbling blocks. At Miami last Dec. 16, Stinson turned in what was to me the best individual performance of any USF athlete last year, shooting 8-of-11 from the floor and 10-of-13 from the line for 26 points to spark a USF team that looked dead and buried to a near upset. Alas, in a harbinger of things to come, Stinson’s night was cut short by back spasms. That plus some dodgy refereeing led to a blowout loss for the Bulls. It was that kind of year.

Nevertheless, this year’s squad looks to a big improvement. The Bulls are picked to finish last in the conference, but don’t be shocked if they don’t. If the wounds of last year are healed, the newbies are as good as advertised, and Fernandez is as good with the Xs and Os as he is with recruiting, the Bulls should easily surpass last year’s win total by the time Fernandez’s daughter, Brianna, turns a year old on Feb. 8.

In preseason training, the Bulls wore shirts with these three little words on the back: “Pay the Price.” I think they’ve already paid the price with the misery of the 2000-01 season. Now, let’s see if they can cash in with their goal of a school record for wins, or at least more than four.

  • Contact Khari Williams at