Since 2015 began, USF Athletics has done the following:
* Had a women's basketball team win the second NCAA game in team history on their home floor in front of raucous crowds that were the envy of the sport nationally. They also won 27 games for the first time in school history.
* Saw a men's golf team crush the field for their second-straight American Conference Championship, and then they straight-up massacred their NCAA Regional. Expectations on home turf for the NCAA Championships run beginning on Friday are deservedly through the roof, and they're not running from them either.
* Watched a men's tennis team not only win their second-straight AAC Championship, but also run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs for the first time. If they didn't run into the host school in Baylor in that round (or had pulled out a razor-thin doubles point), they might have gone even deeper.
* Had a baseball team return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years. They did it the hard way too: by playing the 10th-toughest schedule in the country.
And all those programs have great reasons to have optimism for the future. Women's basketball reloaded, and returns an All-American candidate in Courtney Williams. Men's golf didn't have a senior sign a scorecard that counted at their regional. Men's tennis graduates only one player from their run, and their #1 Roberto Cid is just a junior. Baseball has a top recruiting class committed, but of course we'll need to check on that after the MLB Draft as well as the Aug 15th signing deadline.
And though softball didn't make NCAA's this season, you'd be crazy to think Ken Eriksen wouldn't have his very young team back in contention in the AAC & for NCAA's next year.
So what the hell just happened? What did USF finally figure out to begin to turn the corner? What finally clicked??
Yes, you can give some of the credit to being in a conference that's slightly less competitive. Men's tennis would have had a tougher road to hoe if Notre Dame & Louisville were still around. Same for women's basketball, as UND ended up in the championship game & UL did knock out USF. This doesn't apply to baseball however: it's actually a tougher league with Tulane, ECU, and Houston.
But I firmly believe a revitalized, accountable, and dedicated culture around USF Athletics is the biggest reason.
The presence of Mark Harlan and the changes he's brought to the Selmon Center are starting to take effect. The unity of teams and staffs is higher than it's been in years. Players and coaches are speaking from the same page. I talk to a lot of USF staffers every week, and so many of them are exhausted because they've been killing themselves for months now. They need a vacation.
And that's what the summer is for. As tired as they are, they all want to see men's golf and baseball kill it next week.
I got a robocall asking me to buy season tickets, which is in addition to the multiple personalized emails I've gotten from Associate AD Andrew Goodrich trying to get me to buy back into football. Everyone gets an email from Mark Harlan each month updating us on what's happening. It was something so simple, but it shows that this administration is committed to communicating and listening to stakeholders.
You also see teams and coaches actively supporting each other. Athletes have always shown up for other athletes, but when basketball players are on Twitter showing love to the golf team, you've begun to change a culture. Things like this are happening all the time. They haven't just bought into their team: they've bought into the institution.
We're finally seeing the results of needed change, and it's on and off the court. You'll never, ever convince me that the Sun Dome would be so loud for a women's basketball game that I'd make basic grammatical errors three years ago. The leadership and worker bees of the department got buy-in from the entire community (the Rays, the Bolts, the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, TECO). People worked really, really hard to make that happen, and their sweat equity was a major factor. The Bulls will play in the Women's Preseason NIT next year, and many of those fans will come back and be with that team all season long.
It's not perfect yet: football is projected by oddsmakers to win less than four games next season, and that is of course the boat upon which USF will ultimately sail or sink. But if they don't find success this season, you have to have faith in those making decisions now to get it right. Because they've put together a track record and revitalized the entire attitude and outlook of the green and gold.
There will be bumps along the way, as successes and failures along the way are how these things work. But brighter days are indeed ahead.
And I hope you're enjoying the brighter days currently happening too.