Athletics has a choice to make

If USF Athletics was a dysfunctional family, basketball would be the oldest, most jaded child.

Lately, it seems the University is doing just enough with the basketball program to make it look like it is trying to bring the team to the national stage. The reality is, however, that USF has a history of doing just enough to keep the program mediocre while maintaining the appearance of building a solid contender. The difference of the Stan Heath era is that USF is spending twice as much money as usual to continue that tradition. Proof of this half-heartd tradition is easily seen when one looks at the talent coming out of the Sun Dome in comparison to the talent coming out of Raymond James Stadium.

For 26 years, basketball was the respected leader of USF Athletics. It drew the most attention and had the most talented athletes – but in 1997, the University delivered a very frail but very promising child: football. Basketball at USF would never be the same.

Now in its 12th year, football has ousted basketball as the golden child of USF. Last season, the story was Kawika Mitchell earning another Super Bowl ring for the Green and Gold – this offseason, it was Mike Jenkins being taken in the first round of the NFL draft. So what does basketball have to celebrate as far as alumni in the NBA? Not much.

This NBA season, it was Solomon Jones playing in 58 games for the Atlanta Hawks. Jones joined Chucky Atkins as the only other Bull in program history to play in more than 30 games for an NBA team. Recently, the basketball hype seems to be centered on Kentrell Gransberry being invited to the NBA pre-draft camp in Orlando.

Good for Gransberry. Really. I hope he gets drafted and has a solid career in the NBA.

But being a Bull and trying to make it at the next hardwood level don’t really go hand in hand. Atkins is the only Bull to have done it for the long haul – this year he finished his 10th season in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies. Jim Grandholm played one season for Dallas in 1990, Gary Alexander played one season in 1993 (splitting his 11 games between Miami and Cleveland) and then there was Curtis Kitchen, who made it two seasons with Seattle in the late ’80s before vanishing from the court.

All in all, USF basketball has had seven players drafted in the past 37 years. Atkins was not among them, as he was signed by Orlando after three years in Europe and Canada. In comparison, the 12-year-old football program has seen 10 players drafted and an additional 24 players signed. While NBA fans may see three former Bulls take the court in the upcoming season, NFL fans might see as many as 10 former Bulls play on Sunday.

So what does all this mean? It means that USF got lucky with Jim Leavitt and then decided that football was going to be the child it would support it in its old age. The University is shelling out $1.8 million, on average, to keep Leavitt as the only football coach in school history, while basketball has seen three coaches in five years, all from small schools, and all given small salaries. Although significantly more than former coach Robert McCullum made, Heath’s average $800,000 salary is less than half of what Leavitt makes and considered low among Big East coaches.

Some say USF is making major commitments to raising its basketball team to be a Big East somebody, but it seems to me that USF is making only half of an effort. Rumors circled that USF was interested in coaching giant Bob Huggins when McCullum was on his way out, but when USF was in a position to hire a big-time coach, it went with Heath instead. If McCullum was a Geo Metro and Huggins a Mercedes Benz, Heath is a Lexus: He’s a good coach with a decent resume, but if the University is going to pay a lot of money for a new car, I say spend the extra cash for a guaranteed chance at rebuilding a mediocre program.

And if you don’t want to dish out the dough for the proper tools to perform well in the conference, stick with the Geo Metro and brush basketball under the rug. With an average attendance of 3,852 in 2007, the basketball program isn’t making the money it should and is paying a lot of money for a coach with a 12-19 record and only three wins in the conference.

USF worked its way into the Big East, where schools are successfully financing both basketball and football and reaping the rewards. Connecticut and West Virginia are the prime examples: Both schools have winning records in basketball and football as well as average attendances in the top 100, nationally. On the other hand, schools like Villanova, Marquette and Georgetown have decided to maintain basketball teams without football – saving themselves money while avoiding mediocrity. All three of those programs made it to the NCAA national tournament.

I know Heath has only been here one year and that the team is in a transition period, but it seems like USF basketball has been in the state of transition for 37 years. It is time for USF to make a choice: Either pour money into both football and basketball, or ignore basketball in favor of the football program. Either way, fans will just have to get excited about Gransberry’s workout in Orlando for the time being.