After a decade of serving as USF’s Athletic Director, Doug Woolard announced his retirement Thursday. In 2012, Woolard signed a contract extension that prolonged his role until June 2015 – a date that will now mark his departure from USF, though he could leave his current position sooner if a replacement is found.
The national search for a replacement is already underway and once someone is found, Woolard will be involved in Athletics at an unspecified role until retirement.
While Woolard said in a public statement that he made the decision after talks with his family during the holidays, sources for ESPN have speculated the retirement may have been forced due to the grumblings of unsatisfied fans.
But the legacy Woolard leaves behind is one that is mixed, particularly because of the results of recent years.
Woolard’s contract extension came after a successful men’s basketball season that featured the Bulls making it as far as the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
Likely the biggest success around that time was USF’s softball team, which reached the Women’s College World Series, and a string of NCAA tournament appearances by the men’s soccer team.
But that year also brought about, what some look at as, one of Woolard’s costliest mistakes.
After a 5-7 football season in 2011 under former coach Skip Holtz, Woolard signed Holtz to a five-year contract extension at $2 million annually. The Bulls were ranked in the top 25 early in the season, but Holtz was fired after going 3-9 a year later. USF Athletics is still paying the former coach his $2.5 million buyout, which was recently brought under the scrutiny of a state operational audit that stated severance pay could not equal more than 20 weeks of compensation.
Signing Holtz to a big contract extension and firing him a year later received just as much skepticism from fans as hiring Holtz in the first place Woolard fired the previous football coach, Jim Leavitt, in January 2010 after he allegedly struck a player at halftime in a 2009 game. Leavitt was USF’s first football coach, hired in 1995, about a decade before Woolard arrived. Leavitt then built the program from the ground up and led them to No. 2 national ranking for a brief moment in 2007.
In more than a decade with Leavitt, USF saw two sub-.500 seasons, one being in its inaugural season. Leavitt also led the Bulls to three bowl wins in five appearances compared to Holtz’s one bowl win in one appearance, and accomplished less than Leavitt did with many of the players Leavitt‘s staff recruited.
While the football team still manages to make more money than what Athletics pumps into the program, reeling in $16,295,130 to the $12,027,850 that’s put in according to the latest figures USF Athletics reported to the Office of Postsecondary Education, success at Raymond James Stadium has been hard to come by.
After Holtz totaled a 16-21 record upon his firing, current coach Willie Taggart has struggled with a 2-10 season in an ongoing attempt to rebuild the program.
While Woolard wasn’t able to bring a consistent winner in football and men’s basketball, arguably the two biggest collegiate sports, he was at the helm of a massive athletic facilities renovation project that was approved in December 2010.
The project brought stadiums to men’s and women’s soccer, softball and a new stadium to baseball, which are all capable of housing over 1,000 people. Prior to Woolard, soccer games were played in the track stadium and the softball team played on what looked like an intramural field.
In addition to a new athletics building, the Carol and Frank Morsani Football Complex was built, and the Pam and Les Muma Center was built to house men’s and women’s basketball. The Muma Center was attached to the renovated Sun Dome, another project completed during Woolard’s tenure.
Unfortunately for USF, even with a renovated Sun Dome, men’s basketball averaged 5,389 people per game in 2012-13, or roughly at half capacity, the lowest attendance record in the Big East.
Announced attendance at Raymond James Stadium dropped to the lowest it’s been in seven years, averaging 34,701 fans per game. The actual total tickets scanned at gates were around 20,000 per game.
Through the team’s struggles, fan support has taken a dive in recent years during Woolard’s tenure, as witnessed by attendance figures.
But much of the support for football, and athletics as a whole, was affected by the recent change in conferences.
After joining a major conference in the Big East in 2005, the conference slowly dwindled, leading to its dismantling last year.
While many teams left to other big name conferences, under the guidance of Woolard, USF became part of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), a startup conference that will take years before it comes close to what the Big East was to football and basketball. The AAC will also lose a major athletic program in Louisville, a school that has reached the NCAA postseason in many sports of late, when it joins the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
As a result, USF Athletics is no longer in a conference with the prestige and strength of schedule provided in major sports by the likes of a Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten or SEC.
With Louisville gone, the road to football success in the AAC appears to go through Orlando and the surging UCF Knights, fresh off a Fiesta Bowl win.
While UCF grabs national attention, USF’s most recent impact across the nation in a major sport was two years ago when the men’s basketball team headed to the mecca of the sport, Madison Square Garden, for the Big East tournament.
USF stood in the shadows of traditional basketball powerhouses like Syracuse, UConn, Georgetown and Notre Dame.
But now, at 10-8 this season and 12 wins last season, USF is standing in the shadows of Cincinnati, Louisville, SMU and five other teams for a chance at the AAC tournament in Memphis.
Woolard hired Stan Heath to coach men’s basketball in 2007 after two straight NCAA Tournament appearances at Arkansas and an 82-71 record. So far, Heath led the Bulls to the NIT in his third year and the NCAA Tournament two years ago, compiling an 85-110 record at USF prior to this season.
As a longer tenured coach than Taggart, the basketball program under Heath is sure to be reviewed closely by a new Athletic Director. It will certainly be reviewed closer than sports like soccer and softball, which have head coaches with long tenures and consistent success, while Heath’s squads have been over .500 twice in six years.
Though Heath said Monday he’s completely focused on basketball amid Woolard’s departure, he also said he was initially concerned for Woolard.
“I was sad in a little way because he hired me and gave me an opportunity,” Heath said. “We had a really good relationship. I was a little sad and I’m certainly going to miss him, but after I spent some time with him and we talked, I just saw him have relief and a smile on his face. It’s like he was ready, and I’m happy for him in that way. He was happy so it made me feel better about it.”
While the new athletic director will inherit facilities on par with most universities across the nation, those facilities need to be filled with fans. He or she will also inherit the lack of success in the revenue-producing programs.
Finding a way to win in football and men’s basketball will likely be the next USF Athletic Director’s prime objective.