Coaches Caravan looks to build Athletics momentum on the road

The USF Coaches Caravan will make three more stops in the next few weeks — April 28 in Sarasota, May 12 in Fort Lauderdale and May 19 in Orlando. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The first of four Coaches Caravan stops brought a palpable excitement about the future of USF Athletics to the T. Pepin Hospitality Centre on Thursday, fostering the grassroots support crucial to all collegiate sports.

Football coach Jeff Scott had been itching for the opportunity to mingle with the nearly 200 alumni, donors and fans in attendance. He stressed how necessary these pep rallies are for engaging fans.

“I’ve been looking forward to this night and this event for about two years, really ever since I got hired,” he said. “I had a hunger and a desire to get in front of our fans and share about our program and what we’re doing and really build the connectivity that you need.

“You have fundraising, but this is ‘fan-raising’, really just trying to develop some morale and relationships with our fans.”

John AuBuchon, a 2019 graduate, echoed Scott’s enthusiasm from an alum’s perspective while noting how refreshing the Caravan was. Similar “fan-raising” efforts were nonexistent in the past, according to AuBuchon.

“It’s good that they’re really bringing in the fan base to get that up-close and personal relationship that’s been missing with previous coaching staffs and administrations,” he said. “It was nice to see everyone. I feel more confident going forward than I did before.”

The event featured six other USF coaches — men’s basketball coach Brian Gregory, women’s soccer coach Denise Schilte-Brown, men’s soccer coach Bob Butehorn, women’s golf coach Erika Brennan, volleyball coach Jolene Shepardson and track and field coach Erik Jenkins — but Scott’s impassioned speech on the future of USF football dominated the night.

After reflecting on previous shortcomings and the struggles of his first two seasons in charge, Scott ultimately reassured everyone of his commitment and vision for the program.

“One thing I do want to say is my family and I absolutely love living here in Tampa,” he said to raucous applause. “It did not take us very long to figure out that this is a special place. I came down here because of the opportunity, not just for where South Florida was at the time, but really the potential of where we are going.”

Scott would go on to tease insider knowledge on the design of the upcoming on-campus stadium, break down success with philosophical quotes from football coaching legends and teach a crash course on the history of USF football — all without a single sip of water.

It was his own State of the Union address — a 45-minute sermon any pastor would envy — and it certainly struck a nerve with Andy Taylor, a 2009 graduate and lifetime member of the USF Alumni Association.

“You don’t hear every football coach for every program put the kind of thought and dedication into the speech [Scott] gave tonight,” he said.

Before Scott stole the show, Vice President of Athletics Michael Kelly opened the night addressing upgrades to several other sports facilities around campus.

“I can’t think of any of our sports that aren’t on that list of receiving some sort of renovation or in the plan to do so,” he said. “We’ve got some major innovations going on [in the Athletics district].”

Improvements include a fresh volleyball court in The Corral, enclosed batting and pitching facilities for baseball and softball and a concept for the renovation of the USF Varsity Tennis Courts, all future projects that will follow the newly-installed track at the USF Track and Field Stadium.

Jenkins testified to the immediate impact these upgrades have on the recruiting trail and said he pitches USF to interested recruits with the hook of joining a university on the rise.

“Anytime you see buildings going up on campus and in the athletic department, that’s growth,” he said. “We want to tell people, ‘We’re a young school, but we’re growing and growing. Why not be a part of it?’”

Another highlight of the night was former USF softball player Misty Akers and her husband Dennis, co-founders of local business The Candle Pour, donating over $2,000 to Stampede for Women, USF’s foundation for women’s athletics.

Abby Ritter, assistant athletic director for development for the fundraising arm of The Bulls Club, expressed gratitude for the contribution and noted it’s exactly what the student-athletes deserve.

“Go and look at the records the last couple of years, our women’s teams are kicking butt,” she said. “There are more people coming out to games and that’s really what we want, so we’re excited. We got a lot of work to do, but we’re doing great.”

Kelly put a bow on the night by giving thanks to those in attendance while making it clear USF Athletics can only go as far as the community support will take it.

“This moment is the time to position ourselves for all the dreams that we have,” he said. “All that you have ever done to get us to this point, we’re so grateful for, and now it’s going to be awesome to take us to the next level.”