As you well know, 2011 was not USF athletics' best year. In fact, it will go down as one of the worst years that we've ever had, maybe even the worst. We all realize that this blog has not been a fun read for most of the year. (My output dropped off dramatically because I didn't want to keep writing about how much of a bummer everything is.) But what exactly is there to celebrate about how things are right now? All we can do is wait it out and try to be somewhat entertaining along the way. It's just really hard to do.
With that in mind, here are the biggest stories from the year that was.
1. Men's soccer comes within a snowflake of their first College Cup trip. This probably isn't strong enough to be #1 in most places, but it's something good that happened and it's the only program we have that's a raging success, so it gets the nod. New stadium, rabid fans (including the Goalmouths, who we really need to do a full story about), some fantastic players like Dom Dwyer and Chris Blais, and a thrilling NCAA Tournament run that only ended on a golden goal on a freezing day in Omaha. It was the third time that the soccer team has made it to the final eight, but this is probably the best
2. Football wins at Notre Dame, then crashes and burns harder than ever. We're used to seeing the football team swoon after a big start (and usually a headline-generating non-conference win). This was much more than a swoon, though. This season USF football came completely unraveled, losing close game after close game in a variety of ways. Penalties? Defensive lapses? Horrible goal-line offense? An overly conservative coaching philosophy? A missed field goal that hit everyone like a sucker punch to the gut? Check, check, check, check, check. The Bulls went from 4-0 and ranked in the top 20, to 5-7 and missing a bowl for the first time since 2004. And that led to the next big story...
3. Fans check out in droves across all sports. The students haven't really been on board for awhile now, but the way the homecoming loss to Cincinnati went down was the final straw for the rest of the fan base. People don't have a lot of extra money to spend, and they have more sports and entertainment options than ever in Tampa Bay. USF isn't really good at anything, except for soccer. They have bad, cheap leadership. Their conference is a nationwide punch line and no apparent effort was made to try and get USF out of it. The seemingly unlimited supply of momentum and optimism that powered USF athletics for decades is gone now. For the first time in a long time, there's no promise of a brighter future to draw people in. Nothing is inspiring fans, even some of the diehard fans, to buy tickets and donate to the program. So they aren't, and won't until something changes.
4. USF gets caught skirting Title IX rules, then vows to fix it and may or may not have done so. In April, the New York Times included USF prominently in a story about how schools use creative accounting to get around the requirements of Title IX gender equity laws. The administration defended itself and promised to make sure that they took care of any improprieties.
But did they really? Look at the 2011-12 rosters for sports like sailing (26 members, and we don't even know what high school 14 of them went to). Or women's cross country (50 members). Or women's track and field (71 members). It's not our role to decide whether or not all of these student-athletes are getting the "meaningful participation opportunity" that Title IX requires. On the other hand, Bill McGillis was quoted thusly back in April, when the story broke:
"Not only are we in substantial conformity with ... the letter of the legislation, we are committed to the spirit of it... I think there's a better way, and going forward, we're only going to include those who fully intend to participate in cross country."
After reviewing the results, It looks like nearly everyone on the cross country roster at least ran in a race this past season. So that's a positive. (Although, like last year, we're not sure about the spirit of the conformity when runners are being asked to compete even though they aren't able to break 30 minutes in a 5K race.) As for the other two sports, our response is the same response we had back in April. Prove it.
5. Conference realignment goes full bore and steers USF down a path to near-irrelevance. One week it sounds like the Big East might go on the offensive and raid a vulnerable Big XII, killing that league and boosting its own stock in both football and basketball. And then the next, Syracuse and Pittsburgh are going to the ACC, West Virginia and TCU escape to the Big XII, and it's a mad scramble to find anyone willing to sign up to play football. USF's position in the college football landscape was badly weakened this fall even before the bottom fell out of their season. Instead of being in a relatively stable, geographically logical league that was starting to make a recovery, they're going to be in a hastily constructed, coast-to-coast mishmash that will probably cease to exist 10 seconds after automatic BCS bids go away. Then what happens? We're probably right back where we started in 2003, having accomplished basically nothing in the process.
BONUS: Jason Pierre-Paul becomes the first genuine NFL star to come from USF. I know, he only went through one year in Tampa, but that still counts, right? There have been good NFL players to play for the Bulls, and Mike Jenkins even made a Pro Bowl in 2009. But Pierre-Paul is just in a whole other category... he's a flat-out stud. He's fourth in the NFL with 15.5 sacks. He leads all defensive linemen with 81 tackles, including 16 in one game against the Redskins on December 18. And he came up huge a few weeks ago on Sunday Night Football against the Cowboys with eight tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, a safety, and a blocked field goal that would have forced overtime. It makes recruiting a little bit easier when high school prospects see your school's players making big plays in the NFL.