The view from USF athletic director Doug Woolard’s office isn’t very exciting, but it has potential.
From the second floor of South Florida’s 3-year-old, $15 million athletic facility, Woolard can look out his window and see the large, grassy turf of the intramural sports fields. The fields are usually empty but, under proper guidance, can become a hotbed of athletic competition.
In many ways, the view reflects the University of South Florida athletics program when Woolard arrived in 2004: a blank canvas with a mountain of potential just waiting for someone to help paint a portrait of success.
As the leader of an athletics department that boasts a Top 10 football team and an accomplished new basketball coach hoping to make an impact in one of the most competitive conferences in the nation, Woolard hasn’t taken long to transform a once little-known University into one of the fastest growing athletic programs in the country.
“Everything has sped up, and it wasn’t something that happened gradually,” Woolard said. “This program has been building up, but it’s almost like a light switch was turned on in the Tampa Bay area.”
While the USF athletic program has been around since the 1960s, the dramatic ascent South Florida has experienced in recent years has occurred primarily under the guidance of Woolard.
After the departure of former USF athletic director and NFL Hall-of-Famer Lee Roy Selmon in 2003, the administration began searching for a replacement to help the University reach the next level.
According to associate athletic director Barbara Sparks-McGlinchy, one of the primary goals the administration had when searching for a new athletic director was finding a candidate familiar with USF.
As the athletic director for Saint Louis University (SLU) – a Conference-USA school like USF at the time – from 1994-2003, Woolard had interacted with members of the USF administration several times.
“We were fortunate because I had known Doug for 10 years at that point,” Sparks-McGlinchy said. “He had a lot of familiarity with our program and we had a lot of familiarity with him, so there was a lot of excitement. It wasn’t just a new person coming in that had no idea about USF athletics – it was someone who was very familiar with the program.”
At the time, the USF athletic department was also going through its biggest transition. After only two years as a member of Conference-USA, South Florida had accepted a bid to join the Big East, a
high-profile conference with a coveted BCS tie-in. This meant that the new athletic director would have to be proficient in dealing with change.
Woolard, who was the head of the SLU athletic department when it became a founding member of Conference-USA, had the necessary experience and looked forward to the challenge.
“One of the reasons I decided to accept the opportunity was the fact that USF had a platform in the Big East Conference that it had never had before,” Woolard said. “We are a young university, and certainly a young athletic program with an even a younger football program, but knowing that we did have the Big East platform I felt like we really had a chance to make a difference.”
It didn’t take long for USF to make that difference.
In 2005, the Bulls’ football team won its first-ever Big East Conference game – a surprising 45-14 upset over No. 9 Louisville. That was the first of several program-defining wins over the next few years.
This season, the Bulls became arguably the biggest story in college football when wins against ranked Auburn and West Virginia teams and a school-best 6-0 start pushed them to No. 2 in the nation, before dropping to No. 10 (BCS rank) after a tough conference loss to Rutgers on Oct. 18.
Woolard hopes the success of the football team can act as a blueprint for the rest of the University’s athletic programs.
Last season, after the departure of former USF men’s basketball coach Robert McCullum, Woolard had the opportunity to make a coaching hire for a school in one of the country’s most competitive basketball conferences. The athletic director, who oversaw an SLU basketball program that reached the Top 10 three times during his tenure, had established connections across the nation that made the coaching search an exciting process, ending with the hire of successful former Arkansas coach Stan Heath.
“I had an opportunity to be networked well across the country, and I felt like we were able to plug into some of the best candidates possible that could be the right fit for USF,” Woolard said. “I’m certainly convinced that we found that in Stan Heath.”
Heath – who came to USF after guiding the Razorbacks to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances – quickly realized the effect Doug Woolard has had on South Florida athletics.
“He is a guy that’s making a lot of things happen around here,” Heath said. “He’s a coach’s athletic director – a guy that you feel is going to fight for you and be in your corner. He just wants the program to be successful.”
As Woolard continues to watch his program grow at an exponential rate, his vision for the future is clear.
USF is no longer an upstart program looking to make a name for itself. Since Woolard’s arrival, South Florida has become a model of success for young schools around the country, and Woolard is intent on continuing that tradition.
“We want to continue this rise,” Woolard said. “We want to graduate our student athletes, and we want them to be as competitive as possible at a national level. If we’ve done that then I think they’re going to have a great experience here.”