Welcome the USF Bulls, champions of the Hawaii Bowl. What? No one outside of Tampa cares?
To many that bowl might seem like a Tupperware container run through a dishwasher. But to a growing program not affiliated with a conference and in only its second season in Division I-A, it feels more like a hand-polished golden punch bowl.
The mere thought of a bowl brings excitement to the program.
But what would a bowl berth really mean for the university?
Well, besides some money, the impact of a bowl appearance is a bit of an unknown.
All bowl games are played on national television. So USF will get that national exposure. But in all honesty, not all that many people outside of the two teams’ markets watch lesser bowls.
However, any exposure right now for the Bulls is good exposure. Considering the fact that teams USF beat have been ranked above them in various polls, it seems that too few of the important people in college football know who South Florida is, and even fewer seem to believe it is as good as its 9-2 record. A bowl bid, and especially a victory, will do something about that.
But how will a bowl affect the Bulls’ perception in Tampa?
Well, simply put, people like to root for winners. Fans, by nature, jump on bandwagons. People who have lived in Tampa for a while can remember the days when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers barely filled half the stadium for home games. Now, with the Bucs winning, there is a season-ticket waiting list tens of thousands of names long.
USF, for a fledgling program, has pulled decent crowds at its games. However, attendance really hasn’t increased with the level of competition as the university had hoped. While media coverage in the bay area has increased in the past few years, a strong showing in a bowl may see USF reap ticket office benefits. Who knows, maybe some day they’ll have to open the upper deck at Raymond James Stadium.
But the true benefit of an invitation to Hawaii or Detroit, Mobile or wherever will come weeks after the final whistle blows, in the midst of the recruiting season. USF is building a $15 million state-of-the-art athletic training facility. That plus the warm climate, big-city location, former players in the NFL and conference play have instantly made USF an even stronger recruiting team. A victorious season complete with a bowl would be a strong draw for a young man looking to have a bigger impact than he would at teams like Florida, Florida State or Miami. In college football, wins breed more wins, and bowls breed more bowls.
But the future is not completely rosy in Bulls Country. USF has all the signs of a football team on the rise, yet it appears it will be stuck in one of college football’s fair to poor conferences.
That means the Bulls will probably never achieve a truly meaningful level of respect. In addition, after a few years, the team may begin to regard the bowls that it is so desperately hoping to get into now as pointless. Year after year, even after putting up strong records, USF will see itself shipped off to places like Detroit.
For a good example of the football purgatory in which the Bulls may soon live, one needs to look no further than at a fine Tulane team of a few years back. Led by the now-Buccaneer Shaun King, Tulane ran off an undefeated season. But, languishing in Conference USA, the Green Wave never had a shot at a national championship. The team never even sniffed the Top 10.
USF may become a force in Florida football. It may even beat Penn State in 2005 or the Gators in 2008. But, while it’s in Conference USA, the chances of having a major impact nationally seem about as strong as having a snow game at Raymond James.
Also, the question continues to linger, will head coach Jim Leavitt leave for greener pastures, bigger bowls and more money at another school?
And so, USF seems to represent a microcosm of all of the problems with college football. The Bulls have done everything right. Their rise to a bowl-level team has been nothing short of meteoric.
But taking the next step may be difficult because the NCAA is rooted in its history. Can you think of the last time a Miami or Nebraska or Oklahoma or Florida State didn’t win the championship? Simply put, if a team’s not with a major conference, there seems to be little hope.
At least in college basketball there is still the opportunity for a Cinderella story. In college football, that seems to no longer exist.
Yes, making a bowl will be fun for the fans. It will probably bring national notoriety and help in recruiting.
But will it make a difference in the long run? Maybe a slight one, but probably not all that much.
Unless, of course, you like the Motor City.