It's taking a little while to sink in, but... USF's eight-year relationship with the Big East Conference is over.
And any time a relationship fails, it's human nature to want to look back at all one's past relationships. It's the theme of countless songs and books and movies, from Willie Nelson's "To All The Girls I've Loved Before" to John Cusack's High Fidelity. Or, my personal favorite song of this type (NSFW warning):
So that's what we're going to do now. We're going to list, examine, and rank all USF's conference rivals, from the formation of the Sun Belt Conference in 1977, to the American Athletic Conference's long-term lineup that starts in the 2014-15 academic year. Plus the Metro Conference and Conference USA, which USF belonged to in between. The big schools, the small schools, the football schools, the basketball schools, the public, the private, the nearby, the far-away, the ones we got stuck with, the ones we were elated to join, the ones nobody remembers, the ones we wish we could forget. We'll rate them all, and revisit our most memorable games with each rival, counting down to USF's biggest conference rival of all time. And we'll ask you to help.
To make this a trivia question: how many different schools have been in the same conference as USF for at least one season? And how many of them can you name? (Include first-time/future conference opponents Tulsa, SMU, and Central Florida. Include football-only memberships, like Navy. Do not include schools who never actually played in a league with USF, like Boise State.)
While you're thinking about that, here are the criteria for our All Time USF Rivals Countdown. Each school will be rated on a scale of 1-5, with the occasional zero for extreme cases.
LONGEVITY: How long did this rivalry exist? And how current is it?
BIG GAMES: When you think of this school, how many memorable games -- wins or losses -- immediately come to mind?
EMOTIONAL IMPACT: How good did it feel to beat this team? How much did it suck to lose to them? Is their fan base pretty cool, or does their existence weaken your overall faith in humanity?
FUTURE: Will this be an important rivalry going forward?
The answer to the trivia question is... 38. USF has been in a conference with 38 other schools over the years. The same as the number of spaces on a roulette wheel, which seems fitting for USF's wildly fluctuating fortunes.
So without further ado, here is Part 1 of our USF Conference Rivals Countdown:
38. Georgia State Panthers (1976-81, Sun Belt)
August 5, 1976, was a slow news day in sports. Aside from the baseball scores, and the usual NFL preseason talk -- especially big in Tampa Bay, with the expansion Buccaneers entering their first season --there wasn't much to talk about.
Buried on page 3 of the St. Petersburg Times, in the "Times Digest" collection of brief items, was this minor note:
The Sun Belt Conference, in the planning stages for weeks, became official when six southern universities, including the University of South Florida and Jacksonville, announced formation of the new athletic conference... the schools will [in addition to basketball] compete in tennis, golf, and soccer.
Yes, the world was a lot simpler back then. But that's where it all began: USF's journey from school with no athletic program to major-conference Top 25 football team to whatever it is now began in earnest on August 5, 1976.
But even back then, conference alignments were rather impermanent. Georgia State stayed only five seasons, choosing to "break their affiliation" with the conference at that time. They didn't say why, but it probably had to do with not being very good at sports. They finished in last place four out of five seasons in the marquee sport, basketball. Keep in mind that USF was in this league.
A few years later, Georgia State washed up in bottom-rung Trans-America Athletic Conference (now the Atlantic Sun). They got better, even winning an NCAA Tournament game in 2001 under Lefty Dreisell. They moved up to the Colonial in 2005, and this year rejoin the Sun Belt as a football-playing school. We hope it goes better for them this time around.
LONGEVITY: 1. The conference rivalry lasted five years, one of USF's shortest ever, and ended 32 years ago.
BIG GAMES: 0. There are no noteworthy USF-Georgia State games.
EMOTIONAL IMPACT: 1. Georgia State doesn't even sound like a real school. They sound like a team Bobby Boucher's South Central Louisiana State would play against.
FUTURE IMPORTANCE: 1. Georgia State could become a new annoyance to USF football recruiting. The state of Georgia produces lots of high school football talent, but only had two I-A programs. The Bulls have exploited this market inefficiency by mining the Peach State for high school talent that wasn't highly-rated enough to play for Georgia, and not weird enough to go to Georgia Tech. But with Georgia State and Georgia Southern now joining I-A, future players like Cory Grissom and DeDe Lattimore will have in-state alternatives.
37. New Orleans Privateers (1976-80, Sun Belt)
The University of New Orleans could be USF's long-lost twin. UNO was created in 1956 to serve a large metropolitan area that had no local state university. Its campus was built on the former site of a World War II-era military air base. They tried to de-emphasize athletics at one point, but eventually made their way to Division I. Where have we heard that story before?
New Orleans, along with the aforementioned USF, Georgia State, and Jacksonville, were among the six original Sun Belt schools. (The other two we'll introduce later; they're much higher in the countdown.) After four seasons, New Orleans left the Sun Belt for the geographically-friendly American South Conference, made up of schools in Louisiana and eastern Texas. In 1991, the Sun Belt lost most of its members (including USF). The Sun Belt absorbed the American South, re-integrating New Orleans into the league.
UNO was pretty successful in men's basketball in the 1990s, making four NCAA trips and spawning the coaching careers of Tim Floyd and Buzz Williams. But Hurricane Katrina badly damaged UNO's facilities, and eroded financial support for the program in the mid-2000s. The school originally announced a drop to Division III, but later amended that to semi-scholarship Division II, and then decided to remain in Division I, joining the low-rent Southland Conference.
LONGEVITY: 1. As with Georgia State, our association was short and ended a long time ago.
BIG GAMES: 1. USF and UNO played one noteworthy game. On February 8, 1979, at UNO's dinky Human Performance Center, the Bulls and Privateers played a four-overtime game, the longest in USF history. It could have gone even longer, but UNO's Mike Edwards hit an off-balance jumper from the top of the key to mercifully end it, 75-73. This is still USF's only 4-OT game; last year's Bowling Green game was their first triple-overtime game.
EMOTIONAL IMPACT: 1. I don't award zeroes in this category, so UNO gets the lowest possible score.
FUTURE IMPORTANCE: 0. The schools' fortunes went in opposite directions during the 2000s. USF athletics rose to a BCS conference and football success, while UNO athletics struggled just to stay alive. It's unlikely the schools will ever again cross paths at an equitable level of competition.
36. Army Black Knights (2003-2004, C-USA, football only)
Yeah, we never miss the chance to drop in a Ben Folds track. But this song is fitting in another way; it's about plans that never materialize, and how much better your life is because of it.
In the mid-late 1990s, Army football was facing pressure on two fronts: one, the "everyone has to be in a conference" mentality that took hold at the time; and two, the increasing whispers that the military academies couldn't compete in the modern world of major college football, and should drop to I-AA like the Ivy League did ten years before. (Navy wouldn't find success under Paul Johnson until 2003, and people always forget that Air Force exists.) Conference USA, which at the time had only seven football schools, sold Army on football-only membership starting in 1998.
USF had their future all planned out. They were already a member of C-USA, and would join the football league when the then-I-AA team was ready to compete at that level. This was expected to be rubber-stamped for the 2001 season, but USF turned out not to have the votes for approval. This led to a compromise where TCU and East Carolina joined the league as full members, and USF's entry was delayed to 2003. The Bulls would go 17-5 as an independent in those two seasons, including 5-1 against C-USA teams, but fail to make any bowl games due to tie-in politics.
When 2003 finally rolled around, USF's first Conference USA football game was against Army, at historic Michie Stadium. ESPN GameDay was set to broadcast live from West Point, and mention the game during their national pregame show. (This was a big deal at the time.) But the weather was so gray and dreary that GameDay's presence at the site -- and the game itself -- were barely mentioned. USF won a dull, rain-soaked game 28-0. Army would go on to lose all 13 of its games that year.
The return game, on October 16, 2004, would be a day of infamy for USF football.
Army had fired head coach Todd Berry (career record 5-35) and replaced him with veteran Bobby Ross. They managed to win a game, beating Cincinnati the week before they traveled to USF for homecoming. The game was similar to last year's, with USF pounding it out on the ground, and Army not able to do much on offense. Andre Hall busted a couple big runs, and USF had a safe-looking 21-7 lead early in the third quarter.
Then... Carlton Jones happened.
Carlton Jones was an unremarkable bowling ball of a tailback who had 18 yards on four carries at that point, and hadn't looked like a threat. All of a sudden, he started shoving off tacklers and zipping through huge holes in the USF defense, as if he'd found a cheat code for real life.
On Army's next drive, Jones took a simple toss, cut back against an over-pursuing defense, and ripped off a 59-yard touchdown. After USF scored again, Army's first play was another simple toss to Jones (out of an I formation!), which he took for 74 yards, leaving USF's defense completely out of the frame. The conversion was blocked, leaving USF with a 28-20 lead entering the fourth quarter.
You can probably guess how this story ends. Army would score the next three touchdowns, ending in a 42-35 win. Jones would end with 225 yards, 5 touchdowns, and a two-point conversion, almost all of it in the second half. Army also had more improbable pass completions than the protagonist in a Disney football movie.
Citing artistic differences, Conference USA broke up in May, and in June reformed without Army or USF.
LONGEVITY: 0. At two years, and only one sport, this is by far the shortest-lived USF intra-conference rivalry.
BIG GAMES: 3. As described above.
EMOTIONAL IMPACT: 1 1/2. Carlton Jones alone is worth an extra half a point. Mention his name to any long-time USF football fan and watch their reaction.
FUTURE: 0. It is extremely unlikely USF and Army will ever play again. They've never played in any other sport that I could find.
...aaaaand, that's our first installment of USF Conference Rivals Countdown. Next time, we'll meet our first Atlantic Coast Conference school! You'll never guess which one.
Oh, and remember when I said we'll ask you for your help with this series? That begins now.
For each of the 11 other schools that will be in The American long-term, we'll ask you to rate how important you think that rivalry will be. The choices will be Very Important, Important, or Just a Conference Game. The results of this poll will be a factor in the USF Conference Rivals Countdown rankings, and will help dictate the outcome. Our first contestant is: