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2007: That Season Changed My Life. It Changed USF Too. For Good and For Ill.

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The season everyone remembers USF Football for is both a blessing and a curse.

Pittsburgh Panthers vs University of South Florida Bulls Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Before the 2007 season started, I knew I was leaving USF at the end. I met a girl in Tampa from San Diego, and I fell in love with her and San Diego. It didn’t work out and I came back, but I wanted to be a part of one great USF season before I left.

I returned to USF as a previously-academically-dismissed student in 2000. I graduated in 2004. I worked in Athletics from 2002-07. I just wanted one great lap of memories for the road.

The 2007 season ("That Season") gave me all that and more. What that season made me feel is how I got through The Holtz New Era. It made the "commuter college" I attended and loved a place people wanted to be. It’s why this blog exists.

But it’s also time to have it stop being the first thing that comes to mind when a cab driver or a croupier or another sports media outlet talks to me about the Bulls. Because all three mentioned it to me first when they found out I was affiliated with USF last week. And that’s been happening for a decade now.

You can argue which USF team is the best of all time, but there’s only three candidates: 2002, 2007, and last year. 2002 and 2016 for sure had easier schedules. 2007 has the signature wins we’ll never forget, but also some puzzling losses. Rutgers can be excused; it was a Thursday night on the road with some really weird bounces and calls. But sorry, that UConn team was bad and their "ranking" was a joke. And they absolutely should have beat Cincinnati.

It’s an interesting debate, and one I enjoy having. But here’s the problem:

USF as an institution continues to be defined by a season where they finished 9-4 and were not ranked in the Top 25 at the end of the year. That’s simply not good enough.

The thing I’ve learned to accept about That Season was that USF The Institution wasn’t ready for USF The Football Team.

It took me a few years to realize it, but the school and the athletic department just weren’t prepared. I was the Communications Coordinator for the Bulls Club, and finished the season as an Assistant Communications Director. We had students lined up inside the Sun Dome to get tickets, because we didn’t have a better distribution system.

We had no way to capitalize on the secondary market for West Virginia game tickets, because we had never sold out the stadium before. We changed how the ticket sales guys got paid afterwards, because they were making "too much" in commission.

Our administration was gifted this Ferrari, but didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. And then two years later they thought they mastered how to use a clutch and OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING??

And that’s why the momentum stalled. That Season became this standalone shining monument to the possible: we built a really good college football team faster than anyone could have ever conceived. It was a miracle and a tribute to Paul Griffin, Jim Leavitt, Lee Roy Selmon, and all of the players that bought into a decade of USF The Possible from Lance Hoeltke to Terrell McClain.

No one can, or ever should, take that away from them or this program.

But by That Season, Griffin was long gone and Lee Roy was working 20 hours a week as consigliere. It wasn’t their program anymore, and there was no blueprint as to how you handle something like what was happening. We zigged a lot when zagging would have been better. We made rookie mistakes. And most importantly, we worried more about the short-term bottom line instead of the long-term health of the program.

And then two seasons later USF (correctly) fired Jim Leavitt for obstructing an investigation into his conduct and hired Skip Holtz. And all that momentum was immediately destroyed.

That Season showed what was possible. But without current access to a Power Five league, something you can lay at the feet of Judy Genshaft, Doug Woolard, John Marinatto, and outside factors in whatever proportions you choose, it will be much, much more difficult.

And that’s partially because USF The Institution wasn’t ready.

I’d argue That Season actually started at the end of 2006. The first West Virginia win was actually the more impressive one. USF screwed up WVU’s BCS plans with a 24-19 win in Morgantown. Everyone in blue and gold was nice to me before the game, but wearing a USF jacket got me threatened with two fights in the parking lot afterwards. If I didn’t have a friend as a local, I would have been kicked out of one of Pat White’s favorite Mo-town bars.

Then we went and kicked ECU and Skip Holtz’s ass in Birmingham. That’s when we knew the 2007 team would be very good and had the schedule to make a run. But when your entire program is only 10 years old, it’s somewhat hard to believe that you can compete with the blue bloods that quickly.

Turns out, you can. You can throw the biggest pass in team history on the road in an SEC cathedral in overtime for the win. You can even miss four field goals and still beat them in their building. You can not only just hang around, but actually defeat any team that has traditions you’d kill for.

You can put together the greatest three-hour commercial in the history of the institution on a Friday night on ESPN vs. the #5 team in America. The noise from that crowd can still ring in your ears and make the hair on your arms stand as straight as a Carlton Mitchell go route. Rob Stone can interview your heroes with the crane camera, because your entire student body is on the field.

It’s why That Season is so special: not for what they won, but how they did it. Those kids didn’t grow up dreaming of being Bulls... because there was no team for them to dream of joining.

Yes the three losses sucked, but then they rallied, and let’s never forget that part of the story. They could have packed it in when the BCS was out of reach, but they manhandled Syracuse and a Steve Kragthorpe Louisville team. They put 48 on Pitt and Shady McCoy the last game of the regular season without a passing touchdown.

And that’s what I take away from That Season: they didn’t give up, they kept on fighting. Because that mentality is the only reason USF got to those heights in the first place. We’ll ignore the Sun Bowl, because those guys deserved a vacation after the pressure cooker they were under for months, and the ruthless Jim Leavitt practices that didn’t let up at all.

To make That Season possible again, it’s going to take a team with the belief and gumption that the 2007 USF Bulls had. It’s going to take an institution that’s (hopefully) more prepared to build on the momentum of successes. And it’s going to take everyone from the president’s office to the team managers believing in what’s possible.

Don’t give up. Keep on fighting. You can get back there. You can do this.

That Season can show you how.