Over 10,000 people showed up at the Sun Dome on Saturday & Monday to watch USF women's basketball make some history. And it wasn't just the raucous crowds or the high quality of play from a talented and memorable team that made it so special.
The NCAA Women's Tournament showed that USF Athletics is finally ready to turn the corner, and begin to fulfill its long-promised destiny.
After last night's game versus Louisville ended, a Bulls team that was up by one with under four minutes left didn't hang their heads and run back to their locker room. Despite a very tough loss they headed out to the free throw line, just as they had all season, to hear the alma mater and salute the fans, spirit squads, and pep band that helped bring such a special atmosphere all weekend long*.
But what happened afterwards was something I've never seen at a USF sporting event before. The majority of folks in the stands not only stayed to cheer the team right back, but they went absolutely crazy for them after the music stopped. There wasn't a scintilla of misery, woe or whining. The crowd following a very tough loss was going bananas in tribute to a team that laid it all on the line all season long. No one in the building seemed to feel let down a bit. They knew they had just watched a terrific club leave it all on the court, and had been a part of a special moment in USF history.
There are several reasons for this, but they include conquering new postseason territory as a team, and knowing that every player wearing green last night (sans Tamara Taylor) would be returning for the next season. The future being so bright for a team does help to soften the blow.
Last night USF has the best crowd in the sport. That's right: USF. Your school. The one that always screws it up and became a national punchline for galactically stupid ineptitude. We didn't just get it right this weekend; we did it fantastically. A fan base that has had so very little to cheer for so long came out in droves to support a team that deserved every ounce of the love bestowed upon it.
TECO stepped up and bought tickets to give people some exposure to a product not everyone had seen before, because TECO and its partners now believe in the direction this program and university are heading. That kind of investment wouldn't have been earned or deserved until very recently.
The diehards were of course there, but getting the casual to I-know-nothing-about-womens-basketball crew to join them was a combination of smart marketing, some rebuilt relationships throughout the Tampa Bay area, and good old-fashioned grit and hard work. USF staffers are now empowered to do whatever it takes to make a great atmosphere for every single person in the building, both in the stands and on the court. And they were flawless in their execution all weekend long.
I got so many questions this weekend from people that knew nothing about this team or even women's basketball. "Is this a play-in game or the main tournament?" "Is the game on TV?" "Who's that really tall girl?" (Katelyn Weber). But I'd bet my bottom dollar that the majority of those people will come back next season. If the last 80 minutes of USF basketball didn't entertain you, you're simply not the target audience and won't ever get it. And that's ok. But the rest of us will be happy to carry what last night meant forward without you.
This weekend proved that despite the grinding slog of misery that has been the great majority of the last several years, there is a proud, loyal fan base that has been lying dormant and is desperate to cheer for this school. They want nothing more than to be able to stand up and take pride in the programs that represent the institution they care about so deeply.
They simply wanted to feel good again. And this weekend, it was a women's basketball team that made them remember why it was all worth it.
On the way home last night my podcast partner Josh Appel called me. He's only a junior at USF, but he's heard me talk about the good old days of USF Athletics more than I should. He sent out this Tweet last night, which is to the letter how I felt at that exact moment. But then he said something I didn't expect:
"This was my West Virginia."
Every USF fan that was one in 2007 can regale you with a story of where they were when Ray Jay was packed and the Bulls beat the Mountaineers in a football game between two top 10 teams on a Friday night on ESPN. I was on the field for it, and Ben Moffitt's interception return for a touchdown was still the loudest I've ever heard anything at USF ever (though to be fair, last night's crowd felt pretty close from court side).
What Josh meant was he had never had a moment like that in his three years in college. He'd never felt the things those of us lucky to remember the good times had felt before: the emotion of an entire crowd willing a team forward. A game with an extraordinary atmosphere where the stakes were high and what was happening out there mattered.
That's why last night was memorable and special, and something he'll never forget. It's why you cheer for teams and watch sports in the first place. It was some payoff for putting yourself through all the suffering of being a fan; for the moments give you chills and make you feel things you didn't know were inside you.
And with the change that's in the air, there will be more moments like this coming. Because the worm has turned. USF is finally ready, once again.
* Hey USF Football, take notice: you salute the fans, the band, and the spirit squads that cheered for you in victory AND in defeat. Every. Single. Time.