The history of USF Football can be charted in easily-definable periods of wax and wane more than most. Some of that lends to the small sample size of just 20 seasons, but the lines of demarcation are pretty distinct.
1997: YAY WE GOT FOOTBALL!
1998-99: 1-AA Playoffs? Maybe? We beat #1 Troy!
2000: Nah, let’s take a transition year and start playing with the big boys instead.
2001: We’re gonna be juuuuuuust fine up here.
2002: HOW THE HELL ARE WE NOT IN A BOWL GAME?? 9-2 & #23 in BCS! RIGGED!!
2003: Look out, C-USA. We comin’.
2004: Guh. What the hell was that?
There were a lot of problems with the 2004 season, but two games stand out. One is a weather-rescheduled final week against Pitt. Before joining a conference with a championship game, USF would hold the final week of the season open to reschedule any games that might be cancelled due to a hurricane. It happened in back-to-back years; 2004 & 2005.
A 4-6 Bulls team took on the impending Big East Champions in ‘04, with Panthers head coach Walt Harris having one foot in Palo Alto as Stanford’s new hire already. The Bulls laid down pretty bad that day, and a final score 43-14 in front of an announced 23,417 wasn’t the worst of it: the actual attendance was 12,832. Eek.
But the worst game from that season was against Army. October 16, 2004 seemed like an night where USF’s perfect record on Homecoming should continue, and the Bulls smoked them at Michie Stadium the year before 28-0 with ESPN College Gameday broadcasting live from West Point. It seemed the Cadets would provide little resistance again.
And then a man that would go on to serve his country named Carlton Jones ran and ran and ran and ran. 18 carries, 225 yards, five rushing TD’s (three of them in the fourth quarter). Wally Burnham’s defense failed to find anything close to a solution. Despite being ahead 28-20 after 45 minutes, it just got ugly at the end. Andre Hall rushed for 200 yards on 19 carries... and lost. Army 42, USF 35.
To that point, USF Football seemed invincible. The path to the top of national recognition was to that point basically unencumbered. 2004 was the first time anyone questioned anything about “the fastest-rising program in college football history.”
But the Bulls turned it around posthaste.
2005: SUCK IT LOUISVILLE AMARRI JACKSON IN YOUR FACE! Bowl game! Finally!
2006: WV-WHo? And we won a bowl game over highly-thought-of-rising-star-in-the-coaching-profession Skip Holtz!
2007: The Pinnacle: #2 in America. Auburn, WVU... then the illegal forward propulsion at Rutgers, the WTF game vs. UConn, and Grothe’s four INT’s vs. Cinci on Homecoming. But they did #FinishStrong, going 9-3 before too much Juarez at the Sun Bowl.
2008: 8-5, easy bowl win over Memphis.
2009: 8-5, easy bowl win over N. Illinois.
2010: 8-5, quality bowl win over Clemson(ing).
The Bulls were 12-2 on Homecoming to this point. The two losses were the inexplicable fourth quarter meltdown to Army, and a play-awful-and-still-almost-grind-it-out loss to the Bearcats on a desperation heave to the end zone on the last play in 2007.
These things happen, but alumni and students at this point still believed the long arc of history bent towards USF being nationally competitive, and Homecoming as a chance to celebrate being a Bull together.
2013: FUCK YOU SKIP AND YOUR NEW CONTRACT WE ARE PAYING UNTIL DECEMBER OF 2017 WEAR A MASK WHEN YOU STEAL YOU JACKASS.
2014: Willie still trying to run a Stanford offense with no talent, & Chuck Bresnahan rushing three and dropping eight on 3rd and acreage. Uh oh.
Losing your Homecoming Game four years in a row is a good way to become a laughing stock both internally and externally. The promise and potential of the football program USF alumni had considered their birthright was extinguished in a shower of punts, not-good-enough players getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage, and defenses getting run over by teams with merely a modicum of talent.
It doesn’t take much to derail momentum in a market as fickle as Tampa for sports. Especially when the burgeoning fanbase is made up of a lot of people that didn’t grow up deifying Bulls football simply because it didn’t exist.
Many people thought the Leavitt years were a mirage and would never return. Add losing access to BCS bowl games and getting your ass kicked week after week by bad football teams, and that’s a recipe for an attendance and enthusiasm disaster.
Homecoming since football was born began as a legitimate celebration amongst Bulls Nation. Seeing old friends from across the country during tailgates and around the pirate ship was a thing folks looked forward to doing. Alumni would fly in from across America for the weekend. I know I did when I didn’t live in Tampa.
You made it a point to go to Homecoming not just for the game, but for the atmosphere. And also to see old friends and meet new once. But somehow, and it’s understandable as nascent as the tradition was, that got snuffed out in a pile of terrible football. Why am I going to spend all this cash to watch our team get beat down? Loyalty to the green and gold is one thing, but financial considerations are another.
2015: Let. Them. Cook. Welcome back, USF Football.
Now that Bulls fans are bought back into the program, it’s time to start making special plans for Homecoming again. It needs to be a celebration of what USF is, in a deluge of fraternity-sorority reunion tailgates, student-athlete’s coming together, and stickers with whatever year you graduated on them.
The blip on the continuum of USF Football shouldn’t permanently effect what Homecoming needs to be. There are enough graduates in the non-commuter school era where people should be circling it on the calendar each year.
This applies to the current undergrads too. They need to be out at the tailgates as bright and early as they were for FSU on Saturday. Noon kicks are never going to be as fun when your stadium is 20 minutes from campus with traffic, but it didn’t stop you two weeks ago. Make it feel like that again.
If you live in Tampa and you love football, of course you should be at every game. But if you’re coming from far away, making it back for the big ones (FSU) and/or Homecoming every year needs to be a pilgrimage you schedule. Because that’s how traditions are built.
And sometimes rebuilt.