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USF's Welcome to Small Time College Football

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We've convinced USF's unofficial historian Mike Stuben to tell some great stories and help us out with a few travel things we'll be doing in the fall. Mike is a double Bull (undergrad & MBA), worked in ticket sales at USF Athletics for over 15 years, and bleeds green and gold as much as anyone. Today he kicks it off with some road trip stories from USF's inaugural football season in 1997.

I remember the exact moment I fell in love: it was a Friday night, September 12, 1997. I picked up my phone and called my friend Mark who was up in Charleston, and I told him I was getting up early on Saturday and driving up. I decided at that moment that I was ready to make a life long commitment. I was going to drive 15 hours in two days for a three hour football game. Thus began a love affair between a man and his college football team.

The game in Charleston was a 10-7 loss to Citadel. This was the first time ever my Bulls failed to score 80 points in a game (it was also the program's second ever game, coming off an 80-3 win over Kentucky Wesleyan). I loved the whole experience and when it was over, I immediately began planning the next road trip.

The second target was the Bulls fourth ever road game, November 8, 1997, when USF traveled to Cumberland. I don't know how many Bulls fans understand games like this are part of our history: road games at opponents like Elon, Charleston Southern and Cumberland in stadiums that would not pass the eyeball test to host high school football in Tampa.

If you are a knowledgeable college football fan, the name Cumberland might ring a bell. They were on the wrong end of the most lopsided game in the history of college football, a 222 to 0 loss to Georgia Tech in 1916. If my memory is right, the story goes that Cumberland dropped football after the 1915 season, but Georgia Tech had a contract promising them a game in Atlanta against Cumberland. Tech threaten to sue, so Cumberland asked its students who wanted a free trip to Atlanta. A few of the students got off the train and walked back to Nashville when they understood what they were signing up for.

Before making the trip to Nashville I heard that Cumberland had never printed game tickets before. They usually just used a roll of those red "Keep This Ticket" tickets, that you can buy from Office Depot. The only problem was the USF contract called for them to ship tickets down to Tampa in advance of the game. So for the first time ever, tickets were printed.

At the game was a scene that I couldn't have imagined. USF played at an NFL stadium with immaculate grass. This was something... different. As in this game was not played on grass. The field was all brown, a combination of dirt and dead grass and weeds. There was not one blade of anything green out there. Just white yard lines painted in the dirt.

The stands had about six rows of bleachers. The press box was about the size of a nice home bathroom. The coaches who worked from the press box sat on the roof, both teams coaches right next to each other, with their feet dangling over the edge. USF coaches had headsets. The Cumberland coaches just yelled down to the players on their sideline (with only six rows of bleachers, they really weren't that far away). In one end zone the local Kiwanis Club was having a bake sale. The field didn't have a fence, or security. So when the ball was down at one end of the field, fans could cut across the other end of the field, for example if they wanted to hit up that Kiwanis bake sale.

One of my favorite moments during the game occurred when the ball was near the 50-yard line. Charlie Jackson was lined up wide on the side of the field closest to the press box. He wanted to a play to be called for him to go down the field and try for the big play. Knowing he had to get that message to the offensive coordinator Mike Canales, he turned to the press box, pointed at the corner back lined up to cover him, and yelled "Coach, I can take him!"

When the game was over, USF had won 44-0. It was USF's first ever: road win, shutout, day game and game played on dirt. The announced attendance was 1001.

USF would play in front of more than 99,000 at Penn State in less than 10 years from that day at Cumberland. Diehard Bulls fans will cherish road wins over Notre Dame, Auburn, Florida State and Miami. Every road win USF will ever have will add to a history of winning on the road that began at Cumberland. I will always remember my introduction to small time college football, it was awesome and wonderful and flawed all at the same time, but I can overlook those flaws, because I was in love.