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How To Build A Basketball Program at USF: Patience, Patience, and More Patience

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It’s been done before. And the same recipe should be followed once more.

NCAA Womens Basketball: AAC Conference Tournament-USF vs Temple David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The story of the last 17 years of USF women’s basketball is pretty insane. And because this is USF, of course what might be the best program USF Athletics has right now is an accident of luck, inattention, and bad management.

Jose Fernandez wasn’t hired as USF’s basketball coach through a search firm. There was no press conference, no interviews with local media, no social media push to sell season tickets upon his arrival. That’s because despite having not even been a part of the staff the previous season, his boss Jerry Ann Winters was fired for retaliating against her point guard when she participated in a racial discrimination investigation of the program. Jose was given a two-year contract so he could eventually recruit some players that might have a chance to play for him. He was 29 years old, and eminently unqualified for the job.

Eventually that point guard, Dione Smith, sued the university and the case was settled. But absolutely no one blamed Dione for what she did, because she was right, and she was the best. Some #HOTTAKE artist got all mushy about her for The Oracle after her last game.

I became friends with a bunch of the girls on Jose’s early teams while I was an undergrad. One eventually became my roommate, so I got to see everything from them on and off the court. It was an unmitigated disaster.

My favorite story is this one: a player we won’t name got kicked off the team, as did a lot of girls during this time. When she got back to her old apartment in The Village*, she took to the white board everyone had on their doors to let the world know how she felt about the only Cuban-American head coach in women’s basketball. She penned:

“Fuck Ferny and the raft he came over on!”

And honestly, she wasn’t the only one that felt that way. The teams were losing, and players that weren’t good enough got thrown into situations where it was hard for them to succeed because of the lack of talent they had. You can’t recruit good players, so you can’t win games, so you can’t shake the cycle of losing. At times, it felt like a death spiral.

There were a few successes mixed in. A 7-20 team in 2003 beat a ranked Charlotte team in front of an announced 433 fans at the Sun Dome. I was there, it’s still the most OUTTA NOWHERE game I’ve ever seen on campus, and they must have been counting the lecture classes in BSN next door to get to 433. There were more people at the postgame party at a frontcourt player’s off-campus apartment, all of whom were absolutely hammered. But you could see signs of what was possible.

Eventually Fernandez recruited Jessica Dickson, a Florida kid from Ocala’s Vanguard High School, and the arc of the program changed forever. JD was an absolute monster who could score with the best in the country, and no one competed harder. She finished her career with 2,402 points, the C-USA Freshman of the Year award, a two-time honorable mention All-American, and a full All-American spot her senior year. Jessica’s still with the program as a staff assistant because Jose has built a family as well as a team.

JD led the Bulls to the WNIT during her freshman season in 2004, and USF has missed postseason play exactly once since then. She got the Bulls to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2006, where a BULLSHIT CHARGE CALL IN THE LAST MINUTE AGAINST USC GOD I HATE #WOMENSBASKETBALLREFS kept them from a win. They couldn’t get back her senior year, but her and her teammates from this era changed a culture forever.

In 2009 the Bulls got screwed out of the NCAAs, so they went on to win the WNIT with a string of road wins, taking the trophy in front of a sold-out Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas. From there, they haven’t looked back. Having legit legend Courtney Williams shatter all of JD’s records sure didn’t hurt.

Eventually Fernandez found his niche, which was recruiting talented local players (Dickson, Williams from Georgia), and surrounding them with European players that had played in big games internationally that could run his wide-open and attacking system on both offense and defense.

In the last six seasons, USF has 139 wins (and counting). They’ve made four NCAA Tournaments, reached the second round three times, and they’ve been in their conference tournament final three times. With UConn in the league, of course that’s the realistic ceiling for what you can do in this conference. And they’ve gotten there consistently.

2016-17 was a “transition” year after Williams left, but the Bulls still sit at 24-8 and waiting to see where they start their fifth NCAA Tournament trip. They were ravaged by injuries all season, and they basically have no bench. But they played their asses off, and sold more tickets than any team in the league not named UConn by a mile. Their fans are passionate and bought into the program. They are everything that you’d want from a basketball team.

And they are the model for how USF needs to rebuild its cratered and decimated men’s program.

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It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Jose. As he’s mentioned often, his contract ran out twice before he was offered an extension. He had some teams that couldn’t quite close out seasons. And it took him a few years to figure out his niche. Sometimes he only got to stay and keep working on it because USF didn’t have the money to replace him, or they just weren’t paying attention. It was success by accident as much as by good management and design.

It’s not totally apples to apples. With the winning he’s done, if Fernandez was in the men’s game, someone would have thrown enough money at him by now to leave for a school with better resources. (By the way, the women’s basketball job at Florida is open.)

But when Mark Harlan hires a new men’s basketball coach, he needs to find someone that is willing to invest in the future and not try and win immediately, which was Orlando Antigua’s biggest mistake. Someone that will commit to a long-term remodel of Bulls basketball. USF needs a head coach that can recruit local players, and will work to build those relationships as early in the process as possible.

And they need to hire this person, let them fail spectacularly in terms of win percentage for the first two seasons, and then let them fail some more. This very likely isn’t a two-or-three-year turnaround. It’s a total disaster teardown from the foundation upward.

USF remains one of the toughest jobs in men’s college basketball. It’s actually worse than when Antigua took over because the program isn’t totally out of the NCAA woods yet. The APR scores are going to be a disaster with the number of dismissed and transferred players. Low APR scores can equal lost scholarships (usually two of 13 normally available), no postseason eligibility, and less practice time (from 20 hours to 16 hours a week). That’s not set in stone yet, but it’s a real possibility.

I saw Shantia Grace play in USF’s gym as a high school freshman, and she became one of the best point guards the Bulls ever had. Whoever USF hires, finding local players early that will want to be Bulls needs to be a priority. Contrary to what we’ve all believed, there is more talent in men’s high school basketball in this state than ever before.

USF’s two successful runs ever (the 1990s teams that went to two NCAA Tournaments, the Dentist Chair Miracle of 2012) were filled with in-state kids. So were their runs of almost-success in the Lee Rose and Seth Greenberg years. It seems to be the only path forward for this program.

Whoever USF hires, and if it’s Murry Bartow that could be fine, and if it’s not that’s OK too... the big thing is to let them coach and ignore anything resembling expectations for quite awhile. Let them repair the APR, and start recruiting the generation of Bulls that still aren’t near old enough for a learner’s permit.

Let them find their niche. Let them chart a path forward, and let them fail at times too. Whatever you do, don’t get trigger happy. (Firing Antigua wasn’t trigger happy. When it actually got demonstrably worse from what was already considered the bottom, he had to be let go.)

If it isn’t Bartow, USF will pay FOUR head coaches next season: Heath and Bartow are still on the books for another year, Antigua for two more years, and of course the new guy. Before you can even consider if the Bulls are on the right path, the new guy should be the only one on the payroll.

And it’ll probably take a couple years after that too. But...

  1. Have a plan
  2. Keep it local
  3. Ignore expectations

Because it’s the only chance you have to ever get close to stability again.

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* For you young’uns, before we had Greek housing, we had individual tiny apartments on that land which were supposed to be temporary. They lasted 35 years.