There wasn’t much controversy among the TDS writers about the biggest USF athletics stories of 2016. We all even agreed what order they belonged in. So here we go:
1. USF football has if not its best season ever, then definitely its most entertaining.
After the way the 2015 season concluded, all signs pointed to a big 2016 season for the Bulls, and they lived up to the expectations. The team won 11 games, the first time USF had hit double-digit wins, while rewriting the offensive history book on an almost weekly basis. Quinton Flowers took his place as one of the best players in school history, with Marlon Mack right on his heels. The season ended with a win over South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
The defense was a big liability and it probably cost the Bulls their primary goal, a conference championship. On the flip side, it made the team even more exciting to watch because it forced the offense go out and keep scoring points just to stay ahead on the scoreboard. They delivered over and over again, often in spectacular fashion. You can debate whether the 2016 or 2007 team was better, but there’s no argument that this team was incredible fun.
2. Willie Taggart leaves for Oregon and USF quickly replaces him with Charlie Strong.
At the end of the regular season, Taggart was pulled in by the Nike tractor beam and headed west to Eugene to take over as Oregon’s head coach. (As an added bonus, Taggart hired another former USF head coach, Jim Leavitt, as his defensive coordinator.) It wasn’t a huge surprise after Taggart had interviewed for the South Carolina job after the 2015 season. Personally I was happy he was able to get himself if not a flagship college football job, then pretty close to one.
Taggart left on a Wednesday, and by Sunday morning USF was announcing that former Texas coach Charlie Strong would replace him. It was exciting in its own right - Strong came to Tampa that Friday morning for negotiations and there were media members taking pictures of planes flying over their houses and stalking the airport. The deal was announced on December 11, with a backloaded contract helped out significantly by the buyout Strong is due from Texas.
Clearly athletic director Mark Harlan had a plan ready to go, and he executed it to perfection. Harlan filled his coaching vacancy with his first choice and the best available candidate in less than a week. We never even found out who was in the mix because the search never made it past Strong. It was outstanding work by him, only slightly marred by the revelation that USF had indeed paid Eastman and Beaudine (the same search firm that brought Harlan here) to line up fallback candidates if they couldn’t land Strong.
3. The Big XII embarrasses itself much more than the schools they did not invite to join the league.
After spending the entire summer publicly debating with itself about expansion, and inviting a whole bunch of schools to come to Dallas and pitch themselves to the league, and hemming and hawing and eliminating candidates in the middle of the process (sorry Memphis!), the Big XII finally decided in October not to invite anyone to the league. Of course, they might change their mind again later!
It wasn’t a bad outcome for USF, who can continue growing in the American. But this was a debacle that was all the Big XII’s making. Oklahoma president David Boren was such a massive blabbermouth you’d think he was a Texas booster. The league decided to add a cash grab championship game, even though they already have a round-robin football schedule and even though such a game just makes it more likely that they screw themselves out of a spot in the College Football Playoff. (Well, I guess first they’d have to get into the Playoff, since they’ve been the odd league out two out of three years.) And ultimately, the league signaled to everyone that as soon of their grant of right expires, it’s going to splinter and collapse.
4. Men’s basketball success continues to be USF’s white whale.
Let’s run down a list of calamities that befell this team in 2016:
- The 2015-16 team lost a school-record 25 games.
- Chris Perry was kicked off the team after the season.
- It was revealed the program was under NCAA investigation for academic fraud, leading to the immediate resignation of assistant coach Oliver Antigua.
- Troy Baxter, the biggest commit USF had landed in a number of years, did not academically qualify and was released from his LOI, ending up at UNLV.
- Andres Feliz also did not join the team.
- Jahmal McMurray was suspended for the first six games of the season.
- Then it was announced he was transferring.
Did we forget anything? Probably!
5. Women’s basketball makes another NCAA Tournament appearance, loses Courtney Williams to the WNBA, comes back possibly even stronger.
Jose Fernandez has painstakingly built a durable women’s basketball program at USF. After spending the entire 2015-16 season ranked and once again knocking on the door of the Sweet 16, Courtney Williams graduated and found her way to the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. Instead of knocking the team back a level and maybe forcing them to rebuild and consolidate a little bit this season, the Bulls currently stand at 11-1 entering conference play, once again in the top 25 and once again a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament. The team has evolved into an all-around threat and broke the school record for points in a game in a win over St. Francis.
- Men’s soccer mainstay George Kiefer leaves USF for NC State.
- Triple jumper and six-time All-American Matthew O’Neal finishes third in the NCAA triple jump finals, then narrowly misses qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team.
- Roberto Cid reaches the quarterfinals of the NCAA men’s tennis championships. (Within a few weeks he had already won his first professional tournament as he begins to climb the ATP ladder.)
- Men’s golf again reaches the championship round of the NCAA tournament.
- Softball player Meredith Bissette is diagnosed with cancer, then happily and mysteriously the cancerous tumor stops being cancerous.