Harlan: ‘We can’t do this with a half-empty stadium’

When Mark Harlan took the position of USF Athletic Director on March 11, he faced the uphill battle of creating a culture of winning and rebuilding the USF fan base. 

He leaves the winning up to the athletes, but when it comes to fan support, Harlan is trying everything to win back the USF and Tampa community. 

“The biggest thing I found that needed to be attacked was apathy,” he said. “As we dived into it more, we found out we needed to start getting the students involved and that’s why you see all of these initiatives. When you have your two high-profile sports being down at the same time, it obviously causes fiscal issues that come up because people aren’t buying enough tickets.”

The two wins the football team recorded last year were the lowest in the program’s history and the men’s basketball team hasn’t lost as many games as they did last year (20) since the 2010-11 season. 

Both these programs have received new coaches: coach Willie Taggart arrived before the 2013 season and coach Orlando Antigua was hired on March 31, highlighting a rebuilding period within USF Athletics in addition to Harlan’s plans for the program.

The initiatives Harlan created so far focus on improving the fans’ experience at football games. Specifically, their purpose has been to ease the hassle of student transportation and increase overall student support and passion. At the Bulls’ first game against Western Carolina, the student section was packed with 6,392 students. But Harlan isn’t done creating ways to increase student involvement. 

“It’s always going through my mind,” he said. “We’re going to try everything and we’re open to all ideas. It’s just the constant effort of creating them and it’s something we will be working on every day.”

While the student support is a huge facet of rebuilding the USF Athletics program, support from the community is where much of the financial support comes from. 

To combat the lack of community support for USF, Harlan launched the “Around the Horns” tour this summer, during which he traveled the state with USF coaches to gather support and connect with the Florida community.

“I told them when I was hired that we needed to get out and wake it up,” he said. “We cannot get people involved sitting in our offices on Fowler. Until we do that on a regular basis, people have every right not to support us. I’ve talked to city leaders, corporate leaders, even people in the community that root for other schools in the state and they all want to see the Bulls succeed. Everything is there for us, there’s no excuses anymore.”

The support that Harlan is trying to drum up is sorely needed: USF averaged 20,354 attendees at home football games last season — roughly one-third of the capacity of Raymond James Stadium.

“We need people to support us,” he said. “We can’t do this with a half-empty stadium.”

In the last fiscal year, USF had 2,100 donors for the Athletics program. Out of the 12-team conference (including Navy), this number ranks USF 11th. 

In comparison, UCF has 4,100 annual donors, nearly twice as many. 

“We know where we’re at, but we have to move forward and get people involved,” Harlan said. “This means us telling a better story and putting a better product on the field. I think our floor has been hit, so now we just have to move it forward.”

Even with the early success of the initiatives, Harlan said the best way to fill a stadium is by supplying the fans with a good product. 

“The goal is to put the best product on the field and we are also working hard on the game production and … utilizing video, music and coordinating with band,” Harlan said. “If both of these things come together, we’ll get people there.”

But putting a good product on the field is easier said than done. Just ask coach Willie Taggart and last year’s football team, which finished 2-10 with an FBS-low 11 offensive touchdowns in the season. 

“I think wins and losses are critically important,” Harlan said. “I think anyone is being disingenuous if they don’t think it’s the most important. However, the experience has to be great as well.”

Harlan said he believes the wins will come for the Bulls and Taggart as a result of the careful but necessary management of the football team over the past year. From having the best recruiting class in the AAC this year to fostering a team identity, Harlan said he envisions the Bulls achieving success sooner rather than later. 

In the same way that wins are on the forefront of fans’ minds in the coming years, Harlan is also planning for the results of the team’s success.

Aside from creating more initiatives and bettering the tailgating experience, Harlan is hopeful that USF can bring game days closer to home. 

“I’m really intrigued by (an on-campus stadium),” Harlan said. “I’m excited to learn more about how we could do it, where it would go, the financial implications … it’s absolutely foolish not to look into it.”