Even before USF’s landmark 21-13 win over No. 5 West Virginia Friday, the Bulls had already done something that had never been done before.
They had turned Tampa into a college town.
A city whose sports conversation had always revolved around the NFL’s Buccaneers was suddenly flooded with talk of Big East Conference match-ups, national rankings and bowl game possibilities.
In fact, excitement surrounding the Bulls had grown so much, so fast, that USF coach Jim Leavitt was concerned about his team’s ability to remain focused prior to kickoff.
“It was hard to not get too emotional, and I was really concerned about that,” Leavitt said. “I was really emotional before the game and our players were really emotional. They really wanted to win.”
As emotional as the game was for the players, it might have been even more so for the city.
On a day deemed “Green and Gold Day” by Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, Bulls fans from around the area flocked to Raymond James Stadium, filling the venue to capacity with a crowd of 67,018 and creating a game-day atmosphere on par with anything traditional college towns like Gainesville or Auburn could offer.
“It was ridiculous,” quarterback Matt Grothe said. “I’m speechless about that. It was awesome with all those people there and it’s only going to get better from now on.”
Three weeks after overcoming 87,000-plus hostile fans at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Bulls were able to enjoy the best home field advantage in school history.
Against an offensive juggernaut like West Virginia, the impact of an NFL stadium full of screaming fans cannot be underestimated, and the city of Tampa played the role of the twelfth man perfectly Friday night.
“It was exciting,” Grothe said. “Especially when the defense was on the field and you could hear all the fans screaming. I know when we were at Auburn it was hard to get the calls off, so I know they had to be struggling with that.”
With every third-down stop of the Mountaineer’s No. 2-ranked offense, the Raymond James crowd only got louder, fueling a Bulls defense that kept USF in the game early despite a slow offensive start.
“They lifted us up a lot,” senior cornerback Trae Williams said of the crowd. “The offense lost the ball a couple times so we had to go back out there and stop them, and we all just fed off the crowd. They were making a lot of noise out there.”
Only Pat White and the Mountaineers can know for sure what effect the 67,000-plus screaming fans had on their ability to produce offensively, but by halftime, the offense that had been averaging 47 points per game had scored only three points and committed four turnovers.
When the clock ran down and Bulls fans began to rush the field, Tampa, a city that – until now – had followed football only on Sundays, experienced the elation that occurs weekly on campuses across the country.
Ten years ago, when the USF football team took the field for the first time, no one could have predicted how fast the team would make its way into Tampa’s heart.
But one man did.
Jim Leavitt – the only coach USF football has ever known – never doubted Tampa’s ability to produce a big-time college atmosphere.
“I knew it would happen,” Leavitt said. “I’ve always said, in my 11 years here, the support has been incredible. (West Virginia coach) Rich (Rodriguez) had said they were like the Yankees – wherever they go they bring in a big crowd – but I think we had some people that came in for us as well.”