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Popularity is everything

November 16, 2002 was perhaps the most exciting, and at the same time, the most awkward day for USF’s young football program.

After beating Bowling Green –arguably USF’s biggest achievement in its seven-year history — a celebration that lasted all of a few minutes ensued.

USF fans, unaccustomed to beating big teams, were quite unsure of themselves. Behind the end zone, underneath the pirate ship at Raymond James Stadium, a few hundred kids gathered, waiting for the final seconds to tick off the clock. There was some talk of downing the goal posts, which were surrounded by police.

Eventually, when the game ended, those few hundred fans half-heartedly spilled onto the field; some players attempted to leap into the stands, Lambeau Field-style.

The students waved T-shirts high above their heads, shouting the obligatory “USF’s #1” line. Some darted for the goalposts, only to be swiftly taken down by police.

In the middle of the field, the students and players converged, exchanging embraces and dancing victory dances.

And there was shouting and clapping, and hooting and formidable music. An air of excellence and of domination. But the celebratory sounds only echoed in the half-empty stadium. The fact is, after the team’s biggest triumph, nobody was watching. Nobody was listening.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with President Judy Genshaft about USF football.

We talked about a scenario that could put USF in the Big East, should Miami, Virgnia Tech, Syracuse and Boston College migrate to the ACC. This could potentially be huge for USF, who would suddenly be thrust into a division with a reputation. But it’s not that easy. Many of the Big East’s teams play in the Northeast, and USF doesn’t have a plane.

And, Genshaft also pointed out, USF makes no money from football. It’s renting its stadium from the Buccaneers. The money from the beer and chips you buy at the stadium doesn’t even find its way into USF’s pockets.

In fact, The New York Times Magazine last year ran a cover story on the bad business of college football. Many of the teams in the country are lucky to break even. The whole Bulls football team posed for its cover and was used in the story as a prime example.

There’s only one way for USF to achieve its dream of being a football team other teams take seriously: It needs to win big games in front of big audiences.

So last week’s announcement that the Bulls’ season opener with grid-iron powerhouse Alabama will be broadcast by ESPN should come as a thrill to head coach Jim Leavitt and his new-look Bulls.

A win at Birmingham’s Legion Field could mean big things for the Bulls. It could mean garnering the national recognition it has only gotten a taste of in previous seasons (beating Pittsburgh two years ago and not being absolutely slaughtered by Oklahoma on national TV). It could mean more royalties from its bright yellow bull logo, which can hardly be seen even local sports shops, hidden under garnet and gold ‘Nole and blue and orange Gator paraphernalia.

National attention means money, plain and simple. Money, coupled with more big wins during the course of the next few years, could mean a stadium on campus down the line, a project Genshaft won’t yet characterize as a goal, but would certainly love to see during her tenure.

And while Alabama is a bona fide force in college football, maybe now is the time for a big upset. After all, the Crimson Tide is still hurting from a recruiting scandal that landed it a NCAA sanction, leaving it out of the 2002 and 2003 seasons’ bowl games. Plus, Alabama will see its fourth coach in three years in 2003 with the hiring of Mike Shula. But don’t count on the team being a pushover. It hardly ever is. A reputation built on by twelve national championships, 51 bowl-game appearances and 754 total wins stands in the Bulls way.

But if the Bulls can see past the Tide’s stats, who knows? Someday, somewhere, maybe even on this campus, the excitement of a big win will reach more than the faithful few who follow South Florida football. And “USF’s #1” could be more than an obligatory chant.