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The Argument Beneath The Argument: The Future of USF at a Crossroads #CreateACultureOfExcellence

Note: I understand this article is long winded. Just know that I gave everything I wrote here a lot of thought, and that I did everything in my power to ensure respect is paid to all parties in the USF community.

As the University of South Florida suffered back-to-back PR Headaches (the bungled release of the new academic logo and slogan "Ambition over Tradition", as well as Coach Charlie Strong's poor choice of words in the post-game press conference after the UCF game), it dawned on me that USF is having difficulty recognizing the argument beneath the argument, and this is contributing to the poor reaction by the university. Consider this: we've all been in an argument with a girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse where we are arguing a specific point, and then it suddenly dawns on you that you and your loved one are not having the same argument. The argument, for them, is not necessarily about cleaning a toaster, it's about the time you accidentally forgot to clean her mother's crystal, or that time you left the sugar out and there were ants. There is an argument beneath the argument, and when you figure that out, you can resolve the issue and move on with your lives. You go above and beyond to make sure items are cleaned, and this makes her happy in the long term. Plus, your house is cleaner, and that's always good.

USF has reacted to the logo blowback as though they were arguing about a reaction to a typical backlash to change. Athletics appears to be respond to the backlash over Coach Strong's as though they are arguing with fans angry about losing five straight games. These are fair reactions on the surface. However, the argument beneath the argument is that the USF student and alumni communities feel ignored and antagonized, and have felt this way for at least a decade. The core of the argument is not "nobody consulted us about the logo" inasmuch as "you never consult us about things like this, and when we call you out, you lie to us as though you think we are stupid."

There was a comment on my guest column a few weeks back that sums up the general concern in the fan base: "The logo was bad from the start, but it did not generate the level of outrage we have today. What’s driven the outrage is how the community has been treated. The community now feels ignored, mocked, lied to, and insulted. The logo is just the focal point of a greater issue." Over and over again, I got texts and messages from fellow USF alumni that read, "I didn't like the logo, but now I'm mad. Why do they keep doing this to us?" The students and alumni feel like they are the last to be consulted, and the first to be thrown under the bus. The vitriol showed up in response to Coach Strong's comments that "We're just not a very good football team, we're lucky to have won seven games." The anger wasn't just "how dare he say that about the players!" and more so "why are we going through this again?" The anger at Sterlin Gilbert isn't just his propensity to call running plays, it's that we've seen the players set up to fail with poor equipment. "We need to recruit stronger and faster guys" may as well have been complaining about lack of humidity and hand lotion.

This culture within the alumni community is seemingly at odds with USF's outstanding research achievements, specifically Preeminence, outstanding endowment, and routinely ranking in the top 2 in "Best Universities for Veterans" rankings every year. The idea that a commuter school could become a Top 25 institution for public research expenditures, a rapidly growing endowment tied to the medical school, as well as a serious alumni engagement problem is crazy to me. And yet, here we are.

Further exacerbating the issue is the looming expiring conference TV deals. The AAC deal expires in 2020. In 2023 and 2024, the Big Ten, Big XII, and Pac 12 deals all expire. On one hand, the AAC will get a 3-year head start on digital streaming innovations with their new partners, which will allow us to be creative in ways that the Power schools are not able. And yet, it's not exactly a secret that the AAC members feel like this is the "And Maggie Makes Three" Conference, with Montgomery Burns putting up a sign that says "Don't Forget You're Here Forever." Most members would act like the Reno 911 police after they all thought they won the lottery if they were offered membership in the Big XII. UConn would leave yesterday for the Big East if they could. Navy is less vocal, but increasingly unhappy with having given up their football Independence. With the emergence of streaming, the conferences will - instead of trying to reach large markets like DC and New York, they will look for universities with fan bases who are willing to pay to watch their games anywhere (giving a leg up to schools like BYU).

Now, to paraphrase Jim Nantz: Commentary about the USF Football attendance problem is a tradition like no other. But this time, it's more important to engage with the fans and alumni to get them to willing come to the games at Ray Jay and watch the road games online. With Wisconsin and BYU coming to USF this year, as well as a road games at Georgia Tech and Navy, the school has a unique opportunity to engage with the fans in ways they never had before. But the issue is that the roots of the problem require a years-long solution.

Which means that it's in best interest of the Academic and Athletic sides of the university to come up with a unified vision for what USF actually is. This approach requires a cohesive and unified plan to engage the alumni and student communities. They have five years to figure it out. And, as Collin so eloquently pointed out, status quo should not return to USF next year.

So do I think this should entail? Well, I'm glad you asked, theoretical reader!

Note: I'm fully aware that I'm about to do something I call "dancing inside the amygdala." One of the quirks about the human brain is that the portion of the brain that reacts to physical threats - the amygdala - is the same part of the brain that reacts to critiques of strongly held worldviews. This means that the humans have the same emotional reaction to "Oh snap, you're being attacked by a pack of wolves, and I need to do anything I can to survive" and :"this blogger said we should consider changing the Horned "U" logo that I like, and I need to do anything I can to survive." And that's OK. I understand I may say something here that really, really upsets you. Just know that I'm doing so to create a conversation that grows and strengthens our university, not to spite you. Which actually brings me to my first comment:

1) University leadership must go "above and beyond" to address the perceived culture of fear, and this includes checking egos

Look, I'm not here to poo poo on Dr. Genshaft. She did an excellent job in revolutionizing the university, growing the donor base, and accelerating research productivity. Most universities would take that in a nanosecond. And I'm also not going to pretend that academia isn't filled with petty people who do things that aren't in the best interest of their university. However, the conventional belief among USF alumni is the perception that there are no avenues for healthy disagreement with university leadership, and those who attempt to are potentially subject to retaliation. Regardless of the accuracy of that belief, it does enter into the calculus of potential donors. Consider the following quote from Collin's attendance article during the Big XII "expansion" fiasco:

I’ve spent the past three days talking to everyone I think has a valid opinion on USF attendance, and how to solve the problem. Donors, administrators, city leaders in Tampa Bay area, former employees, students... everyone. Absolutely none of those people wanted to go on the record. There is a level of terror about crossing USF’s administration by those in and out of the university community that is almost North Korean.

We are woefully mistaken if we believe that having the football team goes 12-0 next season, win the AAC, and earning the G5 bid to the Cotton Bowl is going to fix "a level of terror... that is almost North Korean" within the USF community. There is undeniably a culture of fear that exists in the USF community, and simply doing what other universities are doing to outreach to the alumni and students is not going to cut it. Think of this way: if you've ever worked in a toxic work environment, have you ever done anything more than the bare minimum for them? Or were you like "I'm not helping these people any more than I have to, and I'm leaving at my first chance?" Of course. So why would we just expect the fans to return just because the football team starts scoring more touchdowns?

Look, our criticism of UCF over the years was that previous management created a toxic culture that created a lot of problems for their own players and fans, and the other teams they had to deal with. Over the last three years, their new Athletics management has been - by all accounts - working to clean that up. And it has paid significant dividends for them, and not just in bowl games.

We need to make above and beyond efforts here at USF to address this problem. Let me give you an example: during my time at Ole Miss, I would often have students who have been told they are never going to be anywhere as good any of the kids from the coasts. I could have just taught from the textbook and got my paycheck. But I would come in and say "this is going to be the best Computer Architecture class in the world." And they would get intimidated because nobody had ever told them they even had the potential of being good, much less world class. So I worked to #CreateACultureOfExcellence in my classroom and research lab. I sought out top industrial and federal partners to invest in my class, found ways the material I was teaching related to modern jobs. I asked them to give Skype or in-person guest lectures, and people who gave lectures included the Director of NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center Todd May, the Director of the DoD Microelectronics Center, the President of Bell Labs Marcus Weldon, Turing Award winner Ivan Sutherland, and General Charles Duke, the 10th man to walk on the Moon. And what I discovered is that - if you go above and beyond for people when they feel nobody has done that for them before, they will go far beyond what is expected of them. I could bore you with rattling off my student's accomplishments, but I will share a quote from an e-mail I recently got from one former student:

I wanted to thank you for believing in me and motivating me. I felt lethargic and worthless and nearly dropped out of school to go work on the farm back in Tchula. Every time I walk around here, I am grateful for your commitment to all of your students.

"Here" is Stanford University, where my former student is now a Ph.D. Knight-Hennessy scholar. Tchula is the poorest city in Mississippi. Small efforts can make a world of difference.

Far too often, I feel that the proposed solutions to engaging the USF fan base basically amount to doing little more than reading from the textbook, and then expecting the fans to be motivated to leave Tchula and become Ph.D. students at Stanford. If I can #CreateACultureOfExcellence here in Mississippi, USF can do it in Tampa. It involves shaking hands, kissing babies, putting our best foot forward in public and in private. Making amends. It can be done.

2) Coach Strong needs to be a significant part of that effort, and it starts with publicly making amends with the players. And the fans, in turn, need to understand the challenges of his job.

By all accounts, Charlie Strong is a great guy to work for. People in the building seem to genuinely like him, which made his performance at the UCF post-game press conference all the more baffling. I am rarely the "this guy needs to get fired" person, and I am remiss to say "COACH X SUCKSSSSS!" However, I was concerned that Coach Strong genuinely hated working here, and I would have bet that he and USF would get a divorce that was in the best interests of all parties. But since it definitely appears we're getting the band back together, we need to realize that success is in everyone's best interest. Specifically, Coach Strong is the best and most uniquely positioned to be the leader to #CreateACultureOfExcellence.

The one thing we need to understand is that asking head coaches to fire coordinators and assistants is easier said than done. Take Sterlin Gilbert (who accepted the McNeese State head coaching position this morning). I'd say the overwhelming majority of the fan base would have simply locked Sterlin out of the Selmon Center and left his belongings in a box. But it's not that simple when it's your job to build and cultivate those relationships. Sterlin left the OC position at Tulsa before Coach Strong's last season at Texas, which means he was willing to take a chance that the entire staff would get fired the next season even if he did a good job. Gilbert was willing to move his family from Tulsa, and then again to Tampa. If I'm Charlie Strong, I would definitely be remiss to cut ties with a guy who put his career at risk for me, was willing to move his family three times in four years on my behalf, all so I could get another offensive coordinator to take that same risk for me at USF. It comes off as really, really shady. So I get why Charlie was so loyal to him, and stuck up for him. I get the intent of "weren't we 7 and 0, Nathan?" even as I don't like the execution. I am as frustrated with the play calling as much of the fan base, but it's not like Sterlin is trying to undermine the team. Also, as someone in the middle of a move, moving a family is no fun, and I'm not going to try to compel him to do that just because I don't like his play calling. (Of course, he accepted the McNeese State job, so he's moving willingly, and I wish him and his family success.)

But this all ties into the issues I brought up at the beginning. USF fans weren't just frustrated that a 11 win team that was ranked #19 two years ago suddenly became a team that could barely score against the worst defense since World War I. It felt like "oh, here we go again with the students getting blamed!" A lot of coaches, when things start to go bad, go into "I confess!... He did it" mode, finding any blame to deflect responsibility. And Coach Strong's press conference felt - intentionally or unintentionally - like a Hall of Fame "I confess!... He did it" performance. And the players bore the burden, which is why so many alumni players were so ticked off.

When I was in the Navy, I was repeatedly told that one characteristic of quality leadership is "praise in public, correct in private." Don't get me wrong, there are times when public accountability is important and necessary. However, the blame the players bore came off as unseemly, especially considering both the standards Coach Strong set at the beginning of the year (if he actually thought that the players weren't good enough, he wildly mismanaged public expectations) and the fact that the players are amateurs (a one-year athletic scholarship that is renewable at the discretion of the university without potential for appeal is not sufficient compensation to be the fall guy in that situation.)

Although it's been said that Coach Strong made amends privately with the team, the public perception still exists that he has no faith in the team. He should publicly address the issue at the earliest opportunity, not just to make things right with the players, but to begin to #CreateACultureOfExcellence to help the fans understand that they won't be the first ones thrown under the bus when the university experiences some growing pains.

I believe Coach Strong is the person who can do this. He knows Florida quite well, and is well regarded in the football community. Nobody is out here saying Charlie Strong is a bad person. I sincerely hope he modified his public approach to the team unique to the USF coaching position that helps #CreateACultureOfExcellence.

3) While the execution and rollout was botched, USF is in desperate need of a top-down rebranding. And we need to be willing to consider any and all changes. And I mean any and all changes.

Look, I'm not trying to be a jerk. All I'm doing is dancing inside the amygdala. And I get that when people say things like "we really should get a new fight song," I understand why people might react a certain kind of way. There are thousands of people over the years from the band, Athletics staff, and cheerleaders who spends hundreds of hours of their lives devoted to promoting USF school spirit. In particular, I have one friend who was a cheerleader, and he suffered several concussions during his career. I have conducted concussion research as a professor for the last 5 years, and you learn quickly that cheerleading is intense. I don't care if a girl is 95 pounds, a kick to the head is a kick to the head is a kick to the head. I fully understand that there are people literally sacrificing parts of their brains and bodies to promote school spirit. I'm not going to disrespect any of their efforts.

That all being said, if we are going to respect the efforts of all these people, shouldn't we make absolutely sure that they are being put in a position to succeed and have their work respected by the general public? While I was at Ole Miss, I served on the Honors Thesis Admissions Committee, and I can tell you that branding, logos, and fight songs actually do matter a lot when students are picking a potential university. And it is my opinion that far too much of the USF brand is derivative of other universities in the state. If we are going to ask students and employees to - again - literally sacrifice their bodies and brains so we can feel school pride, shouldn't we be willing to adopt popular #brands to make their efforts appreciated and honored by the community? These are the people on the front lines who will #CreateACultureOfExcellence, after all.

For example, consider the fight song. When I was student and was sitting next to the general student population, more often than not, the first verse of the song would be sung like this: USF BULLS ARE WE... WE HOLD OUR MMM MMM MMM MMM MMMM... BA BA BA BAAA DA DA DA DA DA DAAA.. BA DA BA DAA BA BA DAAA BA BA GO BULLS GO! Let's be honest, there are really only a few truly iconic fight songs. If the song was written before we had a marching band, maybe we should consider a new one that people can truly enjoy. Contrast the reaction with the fan reaction to "The Bull." That song is dope. It's unique. It's delightful. It's easy to participate in if you're a fan. It feels like Bulls are running in Spain.

Consider how Oregon got national recognition - they decided to be the university that had crazy uniforms when everyone else stuck with the same home and away jerseys. And they found out young people love that stuff. Now everybody has alternate and special uniforms. So, why not figure out how to zig when others are zagging. Why not pay $200k to one of these producers who can make anything that comes out of Demi Lovato's mouth a platinum hit and come up with a dope fight song that attracts attention? Nobody else is doing it. It would be a relatively small investment that could potentially pay huge dividends. And if people feel more free to sing along with band after every touchdown, and clapping along with the cheerleaders, then we are better honoring their efforts and sacrifices.

And that goes from everything with Athletics. The U logo. The way we reach out to the community. They way we present the game. We need a holistic approach, and the community needs to be involved, not just expected to go along with a generic plan. I say we stick with "Bulls" and "Green and Gold" and reconsider everything else. Anything that gets eyes onto the school and makes people think is a good thing, even if there would be initial blowback from the diehards. But we need to be willing to consider and discuss the #brand, and - more importantly - be willing to subjugate our egos.

And that's my key point. I used the fight song as an example, but the ultimate goal was an exercise in being willing to be flexible in coming up with a unified vision while respecting the community of students, alumni, and employees. Respecting the community prevents missteps like "Ambition over Tradition" for example, and is crucial when working to #CreateACultureOfExcellence.

4) Whatever the new #brand is, the university's near-unrivaled commitment to Veterans must be at the center of everything.

At this point, I can rattle the statistics that show the struggles that veterans have when coming back to school. For example, did you know that 88 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who try to go to college after deployment will drop out by the end of their first year? Or that only 25% of U.S. academic institutions have a detailed understanding of the causes of stop-out or dropout among their active duty military and student veteran populations? Veterans come back home and feel lost in an alien culture, dealing with undergrads who can't relate to their experience or principles, and get frustrated with administrators who don't seem to understand or care about their unique issues. And veterans in general feel neglected by their communities unless it's one day a year. For example, consider what happened at the VA home in Oxford, MS. (This is a tough read for sure, but I worked a lot with Colonel Joe Dickey and I was in attendance at the meeting reference in the article.)

The University of South Florida is the best university in the country at dealing with this issue. Bar none.

For perspective: the national retention rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans after the first year is 12 percent. USF's is a national leading 87 percent.

The word is out about USF among military members and veterans, but it's mostly passed along by word of mouth. I am a Navy veteran, and I found out about USF from friends who transferred there after getting fed up with other schools. I am a proud USF alumni, and one of the appeals of my new gig at Notre Dame is that their relatively new Office of Military and Veterans Affairs wants to reach USF's level of success, and I am getting to work with them through their Warrior-Scholar Project.

So my challenge to USF is this: if we have such a significant lead on the academic community at large, why are we taking we feels like such a generic approach to promoting this publicly. How do we see the cadets at every Texas A&M and Virginia Tech game, but the commentators never discuss the USF student veterans during broadcasts? Why are we seemingly only putting American flag stickers on helmets when our university does so much more? There is a clear void for the college sports team that all the veterans want to root for. Why aren't we making that us?

This aspect of the university is where we are the clear National Champions, and we do what appears to be very little to incorporate that into our community outreach. It is my opinion that this is something that should be promoted at every game. Communications with broadcasters should emphasize this aspect of the community so the feel compelled to mention it during broadcasts.

And here is an idea for a Veteran's Day helmet that I have shared with several veterans who overwhelmingly love it. Combat veterans often engage in art therapy to work to overcome physical issues and PTSD. Often, then paint scenes of battles or of their heroes. So, my idea is that we work with VA homes in Tampa and the surrounding communities to help veterans paint famous acts of heroism or of their favorite veterans. These paintings would be put on one side of the player's helmets. A website could be created where fans could look up the meanings of the particular paintings, and would become much more aware of the issues veterans in the Tampa community are facing. And proceeds from sales of the helmets could be split between those VA homes to help with their care as well as scholarships for current USF veteran students. I understand the logistics would be difficult, but so is what our combat veterans who are now USF students are facing. And I believe the publicity for this would be overwhelmingly positive for the USF community.

Thank you for allowing me to dance inside your amygdala for awhile. #MyVPofAthletics Michael Kelly is by all accounts a calm, measured man with a PR background, and I am quite confident him and Charlie Strong can work together to #CreateACultureOfExcellence together! Go Bulls!

This post was created by one of our blog's readers.

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