MAXWELL:  USF wins, both on and off the field

11/19/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Tampa Bay is witnessing a phenomenon: the transformation of the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus from an urban commuter institution with no yearbook or esprit de corps into a campus where students, staff and alumni are feeling like a family. Several trends and events, two of which we will discuss, are responsible for this change.

First, new facilities clustered around the Martin Luther King Plaza, bookstore, food court, library, administration and other core buildings have changed the school’s character. The campus no longer feels or looks like an open expanse dotted by hulking structures haphazardly linked by unprotected walkways, said Todd Simmons, director of media relations.

Students are beginning to feel tradition. They are staying on campus longer hours _ just to hang out and study with classmates. Camaraderie is everywhere. Many say that USF is beginning to feel like the University of Florida, Florida State and the University of Miami. Additional dormitories will bring even more students and activities to campus.

But architecture and landscape are only part of USF’s metamorphosis. Believe it or not, football is changing the campus in ways that only a few people have envisioned. For many years, alumni, students and others demanded that Florida’s second-largest and the nation’s 13th-largest university field a team.

After all, Florida is a football state _ a place where all three major universities have been national champions within the last 10 years, where rival coaches from around the country scrounge for scatbacks and wide receivers.

Officials have been working quietly for many years, building a solid endowment and foundation, securing alumni and corporate support, convincing Tallahassee that big-time college football belongs in Tampa and would enhance USF’s viability all around.

Now, as the Bulls prepare to play the season finale against Davidson on Saturday at Houlihan’s Stadium, USF officials are saying: “We told you so.”

As a season ticket holder, I have been to several games. Each time, I am amazed to see thousands of fans tailgating. I am amazed because, even though this is the school’s first year of football, fans are acting as if they have been grilling burgers, drinking beer and showing off their motor homes here for generations. I feel as if I am at Florida Field or Doak Campbell Stadium or the Orange Bowl.

Simmons said that even before the Bulls played the season opener, the school was earning dividends for having introduced football. For the first time, USF was getting sustained national attention.

Profiles touting the university’s student enrollment and international diversity, its faculty, courses, degrees and local amenities appeared in heavyweights such as the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.

“Without doubt,” Simmons said, “our football program made all of this possible. We can now leverage the publicity in ways that benefit us. Football has put us on the national map.”

Indeed, officials expect many more good things to happen because of football. For one, perhaps the most important, alumni now have reason to return to the campus often. They are bonding like never before, and, of course, many will write bigger checks.

In addition to enticing alumni back to campus, football will attract many of Florida’s brightest students, and it will cause top students in other states to give USF a closer look.

“Never underestimate the power of a great back, like a Warrick Dunn, or a quarterback, like a Peyton Manning, to attract people to a university,” said an official, who asked to remain anonymous. “Given all the talent we have here in Florida, we’re going to have some real standouts in a few years. NFL scouts will be crawling all over themselves.”

Who, except perhaps coach Jim Leavitt, seriously thought that a motley crew of freshmen and out-of-state transfers had an even chance of winning a single game during its first year on the field? Well, 10 games into an 11-game schedule, the Bulls are 4-6, with a near-upset of Division I-AA powerhouse Georgia Southern last week.

Even if the Bulls thrash Davidson on Saturday and go 5-6, they will not enjoy an “official” winning season. But tell that to fans and university officials. To them, the Bulls are already winners. And very soon, bonfires, pep rallies, pompoms and shouts of “hit ’em again! Harder! Harder!” will be as familiar on campus as sun screen, summer rains and mosquitoes.

On the downside, the football program’s greatest challenge will be avoiding the kind of scandals that marred the reputations of UF, FSU and Miami.