I'm not married and I don't have any kids, so I don't feel awkward in telling you one of the greatest nights of my life was September 28th, 2007. Myself and 67,018 of my closest friends watched a USF football game against #5 West Virginia on a Friday night on ESPN. Tickets were going for $500+ on StubHub. Students lined up around the Sun Dome and past the Campus Recreation Center to pick up their free tickets. It was the biggest sporting event in Tampa Bay in forever.
Don't believe me? Look.
Before games I always walked through the tunnel onto the field a few minutes before kickoff just to suck up some of the atmosphere. That night as soon as I hit the grass, my eyes welled up. We finally made it.
The Little Football Program That Could had just shattered every reasonable barrier in record time. From not even existing to that crowd in front of the nation on ESPN in just 11 years is patently ridiculous. And I was lucky enough to be a part of it as a fan, student, and staffer.
When Ben Moffitt intercepted a Pat White pass late in the first quarter, I was standing on the sidelines at about the same yard marker he was on the east side of the stadium. He ran it back for a touchdown, and when he hit the end zone I literally felt the ground underneath my feet vibrating.
It was a roar I will never, ever forget. It was the loudest Raymond James Stadium has ever been before or since. I get chills just typing that sentence and thinking about it.
I had already decided to move to California after the season, but that roar made leaving so much easier. I knew my beloved Bulls would be fine. USF had built something sustainable in just eleven seasons of play. Crowds like this might not happen every week, but they weren't going to be an uncommon occurrence going forward. We were going to crash through that ceiling of blue-blooded programs come hell or high water. Look out world, we're here and we're not leaving.
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We've discussed ad nauseam the reasons for the crash and burn, but here's an effect that will linger for a long time: students that graduate this year will most likely have never seen a .500 football season from USF, much less a bowl game. And unless they headed downtown to the then St. Pete Times Forum in 2012 or made the journey to Dayton or Nashville for the NCAA's (I was there, they didn't), they won't have seen a winning USF basketball season either.
This is the first graduating class in the modern era of USF Athletics, defined as anything from the advent of football in 1997 forward, that will have seen such ineptitude on the field. Most (if not all) of the reasons for that ineptitude are no longer with the program, but how much damage was done that is permanent? Will these students come back and buy season tickets? Will they become donors to the program? Will they attach themselves to the Bulls in any lasting way?
I was talking to two USF students last week that were both big football fans. They were both seniors in the College of Engineering, but had only been to a couple USF games during their time here. They also didn't believe me when I said USF had been to six straight bowl games between 2005-10. They had no idea we once sold out games. And they were far more interested in the NFL than their school.
That's what previous incompetence has wrought. And it won't improve until the product on the field does.
I sat with the USF Goalmouths during the AAC women's soccer tournament quarterfinal last Sunday. They mentioned a survey was sent out by USF Athletics to students that had attended the Houston football game asking their thoughts and how the game experience could be improved. Kudos to the Selmon Center for doing this type of outreach, as it's been desperately needed for about a decade now, but their answer was pretty simple:
"You want people to show up, you gotta win."
Keep in mind these are students that are setting off smoke bombs and waving USF flags at a women's soccer game at 1 p.m. on a Sunday. They are not only sports fans, they are diehard Bulls fans. And they've checked out on the biggest program.
No one loves USF volleyball more than I do, but those ladies won't drive the needle. Neither will a men's soccer team that has been consistently impressive for over a decade. Ken Eriksen's softball team made a trip to the Women's College World Series, and I had a ball out there in OKC cheering them on, but I doubt it increased giving amongst young alumni. The overwhelming majority of checks get written and people show up for the two revenue sports. And this class has yet to see that success first-hand.
Can USF get them back? I don't know. I wouldn't trade the years of 2000-07 (my time as a student/working for USF) for anything, and I feel terrible that the current class hasn't been able to share in what so many younger alumni have. The memories I have help define me as a sports fan. They define me socially as so many of the friends I made during that time are still my friends. We plan road trips together. We tailgate together. We obsess over recruiting classes and potential transfer quarterbacks together.
Those memories also define this blog because if it weren't for them, it wouldn't exist.
Thousands of students will leave this campus with very few, if any, positive athletics memories from their time as students. That can't be rectified. But giving the next class something to cheer about, and the one after that, is all that can be done.