We've been screaming for years now that everything is on fire (and for the most part we've been proven right), but now let's hope that fire is starting to come under control. Lots of things have burned down. They can be rebuilt, but we need a roadmap and a plan to make that happen. You're not going to believe this, but we have a few suggestions:
1. Re-establish the bond of trust between the school and the fans, and have a plan to share.
We were promised that the goal would be to compete for national championships in every sport in which we play, and congrats to softball and men's soccer for consistently sustaining that success for a period of time now. But for the most part we've fallen short of that goal, and the behemoth that is football has been regressing for several years now, which affects every sport downstream tremendously. We were also told the goal was to be the "best athletic department in the Big East," and that didn't come close to happening.
So go out to the world with a specific plan. Set some realistic and achievable goals, and tell everyone how you plan to get there. Say what you've learned so far, and what you plan to do differently now. Take the show on the road, and not just with the Around the Horns tour. Get out in downtown Tampa & St. Pete during work days. Give every media interview you can, and have press conferences on a regular basis to share not only what's happening on the field, but also the progress towards those stated goals. Have everyone from coaches to student-athletes to President Genshaft on the same page, asking fans to come home and help grow the program to bigger heights than its ever seen before. It can be done, but it can't be done alone. The entire university community as well as Tampa Bay needs to buy-in.
Many donors at all levels to USF still recognize me from my former position with the Bulls Club, and are very willing to talk about what they thing are failings in the program. They feel like they've been promised the world, but what has been delivered has been woefully short. Donors are always going to complain about not enough free food or bad parking spaces or their complimentary T-shirts being the wrong color, but these problems are something much more fundamental. They're deep-seated, and goes to a lack of trust.
Some acknowledgement of the past is crucial to getting credibility for the future. Openly discuss the conference realignment issues, and what kept USF from maintaining their BCS status. Talk about budgets, ticket sales, and major gifts, and what will be needed for the future. There isn't a lot of credibility with the department currently, specifically amongst targets for the six-and-seven figure gifts that will be needed.
And don't think for a second that this isn't about money: USF is going to need cash more than ever now. Bringing back donors at all levels is going to be crucial for intermediate-to-long-term success.
There's a new football coach, two basketball programs that should be quite good this year, and many Olympic sports seem poised for breakout success. Those need to be sold and marketed to the general and university communities. But they need to come from a credible source, and that only comes with open and honest reflection.
2. Hire talented leadership from winning programs, and compensate them fairly.
USF has had a tendency to hire young people by giving them a nice title but not a lot of money. The theory was that they'll come here to say they worked at a BCS program, they'll get a cool business card (Assistant AD, Associate AD, Director of XYZ, etc), and all that looks great on a resume. But at this time the way forward should be to attract some seasoned college athletics professionals that aren't afraid of a challenge.
The relationship of trust between the institution and the fan base (and more specifically, the donor base) has been broken and is in need of serious repair. Folks that come from institutions that prioritize winning and relationship development should be emphasized. The elite athletic departments of America (Duke, Stanford, Louisville, Michigan State, Florida) should be pressed hard for staffers that can come and bring relevant experience immediately.
3. Bring back some alumni that love the place.*
What USF has really lost over the last several years is the passion of people that just bled green and gold. People that would run through a wall for the Bulls. People that got that special rush in their veins seeing a sold out Ray Jay against West Virginia, or got a pep in their step from the Sun Dome court being stormed by students. There's been an antiseptic, distant quality in the Selmon Center for quite awhile now. Many of those with passion for the program have been jettisoned or couldn't stand the work environment.
What made USF so special was the specific brand of passion from the people that were there every day. Coaches, secretaries, administrators, interns, and everyone inbetween knew USF was underbudgeted, underrespected, and overmatched. And almost to a person, they didn't give a damn. "Up against decades of tradition? Screw 'em, we'll find a way." "No one has ever started a successful D-1 football team in 5 years? Who cares, we'll do it." And we did! It wasn't just football: remember USF went to more NCAA tournaments across all sports during their time in C-USA than every other school in the league. And in this weakened conference, that is a goal that must be achieved again.
We were always the underdog, but that underdog mentality filtered from the top to every single student-athlete. We worked harder and wanted it more than the bluebloods, because we knew we were in on the ground floor of a growth stock. Now that stock has been severely downgraded, but the fundamentals are still there. 12th largest TV market, huge student base, outstanding facilities (some of which need to be finished, by the way), and some of America's most fertile recruiting territory. These were the things USF hung its hat on, and rode it from no team to a BCS conference in eight years.
The promise of this program CAN be fulfilled. It has been delayed, but shouldn't ever be denied. We humbly submit this in the hopes that a way forward is there for our beloved Bulls. Let's hope that now begins an era of The Fastest-Growing Athletics Department in America: Part Two.
* This absolutely does not include me. I left of my own free will six years ago, and don't have any desire to return as anything but a fan. But there are plenty of people with my passion for the Bulls that can't say the same. Bring them home.