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Status Quo Will Not Return to USF Football in 2019

Central Florida v South Florida Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

This was originally going to be a piece about what USF needed to do in the offseason to regain the trust of its fans, players, and the Tampa Bay area going into a massively important 2019. With seven home games at Raymond James Stadium next year, including Wisconsin and BYU, everyone associated with USF Athletics is aware of the stakes around the upcoming season. It’s a huge opportunity to grow the fan base, the donor pyramid, and the number of season tickets sold.

But after talking with over a dozen people connected to the program at all levels, a post-mortem screed is not necessary. Because everything that needs to happen is actually happening.

Don’t let the lack of future endeavors press releases, rivers of blood, and pounds of flesh on Alumni Drive fool you: 72 hours after the Black Friday failure, everything about this season is under evaluation. There’s only one place more frustrated with the end of USF’s football season than the green side of Raymond James Stadium last Friday night.

The Selmon Center for the past five weeks.

Yes the “Were we not 7-0?” retort from Charlie Strong still sticks in the craw of this fanbase, don’t let that inartful quote make you believe that standing pat is an option. This program is being examined from top to bottom, and not just in the coaching areas. Everything from the trainers to the film interns to the guys holding the first down chains are being scrutinized.

Though no moves have been made yet, all my sources tell me change is forthcoming. New athletic director in Michael Kelly is a calm, measured hand, but is actively taking a holistic look at the program right now. He’s working with Strong as well as his cabinet of Associate ADs on what is the best path forward. Though it isn’t the mass carnage the most vociferous of #USFTwitter would like, change is already happening.

The number one thing Kelly preaches to his staff is “engagement,” and as his active presence on social media shows, he’s aware of what’s being said about this program by the fans as well as from players, parents, and football alumni. We can also confirm that in meetings behind closed doors, he’s asking many of the same questions many fans are about how a team went from 7-0 to 7-5 with seeming light speed.

There are two dates that will affect decision-making going forward: whatever day the bowl game is, and Dec. 19-21st being the early signing period for football. The timing of all decisions will factor in these two things. So you might see some changes or movement this week, and some later in the year. There won’t be a here’s-all-the-changes-at-once press release as this process will be more deliberate, but still mindful of the college football calendar.

Something that needs to be corrected here is the status of Charlie Strong’s contract. This website had reported previously, as did USA Today, that his buyout was $192,308. That was never correct, and it’s due to unwieldy language in the memorandum of understanding between USF and Strong released upon his hire. Prima facie, it appears to be worded as the Bulls are only on the hook for 20 weeks of his $500,000 a year base salary.

But apparently his actual contract with the university is much more significantly guaranteed. Millions more guaranteed. How much exactly we still don’t know, but what was widely-reported as one of the best buyout bargains in FBS apparently simply wasn’t. Blame previous management on this, and for letting it be written as fact without correction.

Here’s the MOU in full. We can get into how it’s clunkily-worded and the differences between “base” and “supplemental” compensation, but that’s irrelevant now. Keep in mind an MOU is not a contract, and no one in the media seems to have the actual final deal. I bet that gets rectified via public records request soon.

This also applies to several assistant coaching contracts, where guarantees that include the upcoming season were made to encourage employment at a much-lower rate for the past two years because of the subsidies provided by the University of Texas. They are of course less penal than the head coach’s deal.

As far as that head coach is concerned, I don’t think that makes a difference because even if the buyout was $1, a lot of people at USF think Charlie Strong can be the answer to get them to a conference championship. This isn’t blind loyalty, and there is also a realization some things need to significantly change if this marriage is going to work, including how the head coach communicates about his team to the media and others around the program.

Something that is on Strong’s side here: the people in the building and the players truly like Charlie Strong personally. They think he’s a good man and a good person that is trying to do right by everyone involved. He’s also a quality recruiter that knows every inch of this state’s fertile high schools that are covered in talent.

They also think his loyalty to the men he recruited to coach might have gone too far, and his repeatedly punting on 4th and 1 from midfield down two scores in the second half offends math and reason. That the game has “passed him by” is a sentiment that has been heard, but he’s also been given the benefit of the doubt due to the lack of facilities and staffing, which simply aren’t up to top-of-the-AAC standards yet either. Everyone in the building is asking the same questions Twitter has about game management. That will be addressed in the evaluation period as well.

As one person told me: “it’s not like this program has ever won anything. It’s only a rebuild if it was built in the first place, right?” But there is also recognition that Strong inherited a team that on talent alone was at or very near the top of the AAC, and significantly underperformed this season. But is that a blip or a pattern?

A great point I heard from a football staffer: “If Nick Saban can hire Lane Kiffin and Mike Locksley and start throwing the ball on tempo, why can’t Charlie Strong?” All the other pieces for success seem to be in place, so scrapping everything and starting over simply might not be the best choice at this stage of USF’s development, and with such a huge schedule next year.

So my advice to USF is to stay patient, relax, and realize that changes are coming to the Bulls. But they will be thoughtful, well-reasoned changes, and not made simply for easy short-term public relations or the bloodlust of the masses.

Which is exactly what USF fans should want.