It may not be a white Christmas this year for South Florida football, but it could be a memorable one.
USF came one step closer to achieving its goal of receiving its first bowl bid Wednesday when the Hawaii Bowl extended a conditional invitation to the Bulls (9-2) to play Dec. 25 in Honolulu.
The Bulls’ appearance in the Hawaii Bowl is contingent upon the Cincinnati East Carolina game 7 p.m. Friday on ESPN2. If Cincinnati wins, the Bearcats will be 7-6 and bowl eligible. That would give Conference USA five bowl eligible teams, enough to fill all its slots. Tulane would go to Hawaii to play the University of Hawaii.
However, should East Carolina defeat Cincinnati, the Bulls will be on their way to Honolulu to meet the Warriors (9-3), who wrap up their regular season Saturday at home against San Diego State.
“I’ve always said our chance was about 10 percent,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “It’s only 100 percent if ECU wins. If they don’t win, we don’t go. I don’t know how confident I am with our fate in another team’s hands.”
Wednesday’s announcement was a definite relief for USF Athletics Director Lee Roy Selmon, who has spent the past two weeks phoning bowls in order to land USF a bid.
“It has been a team effort, starting with the players and coaches, and the success they’ve had all year,” Selmon said. “That’s the real catalyst behind this. Our staff has been working hard, and fortunately, thanks to the conference and the Hawaii Bowl, a deal has been worked out on a provisional basis that depending on the outcome of the East Carolina — Cincinnati game, they’ll have that opportunity.”
USF might owe a lot of thanks to C-USA for the league’s bargaining on its behalf. C-USA Assistant Commissioner Brian Teter said the league has been talking with the Hawaii Bowl and ESPN Regional, which owns the game, when it became apparent the conference might not have five bowl-eligible teams.
“We didn’t tell them to pick South Florida,” Teter said. “We just asked them to strongly consider South Florida. And they did a good job selling themselves. Nine and two speaks loudly.
“They had a lot to offer. They’re from a football-crazed state and a big market.”
Each team in the bowl will receive the minimum payout of $750,000. Teter said he was unsure if the Bulls would split their share with the conference for its help, though that might allow USF into C-USA’s bowl pool, which could help cover the Bulls’ travel costs.
“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” Teter said. “It’s still to be talked about. It’s a delicate issue. They don’t pay football member dues, but they do in every other sport. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Leavitt said he learned two days ago from the local media in Hawaii that a deal might be in the works. ESPN Regional called Leavitt Wednesday to confirm the negotiations. Selmon indicated that USF would try to keep its options open with other bowls, most likely the Motor City, should Cincinnati win Friday.
“The Motor City Bowl still has us on their radar,” Selmon said. “We’ve done a great job with letting folks know who we are and (that) we are interested.
“The ball is kind of in their court.”
Leavitt seemed less optimistic that the Bulls can land another bowl should things fall through in Hawaii.
“I’m not talking to anyone,” Leavitt said. “I think it’s our only shot. I think our whole fate will lie in the Friday night game, whether we go to Hawaii or stay home, depending if East Carolina wins or loses. I think all the rest of the bowls are looking in other places.”
The inaugural Hawaii Bowl will take place Dec. 25 at 8 p.m. at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, which will be aired on ESPN. There was no bowl game from Hawaii last year, but the Aloha Bowl was a staple from 1982-2000, and the game was part of a doubleheader with the Oahu Bowl from ’98-’00.