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USF’s new basketball coach has a tough job. Here’s how tough

By Joey Knight
USF head coach Brian Gregory during practice at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Florida on Monday, November 6, 2017. OCTAVIO JONES | Times

TAMPA ó The USF Sun Dome, domicile of Bulls basketball, still bears the sparkle of a $36 million facelift, which concluded in 2012 and made it a sleeker, shinier mausoleum.

It has become the place where menís coaching careers go to die and mediocrity goes to roost. The Bullsí average home attendance last season: 2,586. Every other American Athletic Conference school not named Tulane averaged at least 1,400 more.

"Great facility for basketball," new coach Brian Gregory told a recent booster gathering. "Itís gonna be even better when people are in it."

The Bulls last avoided double-digit losses in Obamaís first term. USF fired its previous coach in January, finished 8-23 and watched six scholarship players bolt.

The program is picked to finish last in the American Athletic Conference again.

It averages 9.8 wins the past five seasons, the fewest in menís major college basketball. Florida A&M (7.8) is the only state Division I program that has won less.

Gregory knows winning, having experienced four Final Fours and a 2000 national title as a Tom Izzo assistant at Michigan State.

As a head coach, Gregory averaged 21 wins in eight seasons at Dayton ó where he won a 2004 Atlantic 10 Conference title ó but only 15 in five at Georgia Tech.

He was given the keys to this USF rig in March. But truth be told, no one has ever really gotten it cranking.

"They need a new kind of energy," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "They need it badly."

Theyíve needed it for eons. In the last quarter-century, the Bulls have made one NCAA Tournament. One.

At least Gregory understands the magnitude of the challenge before him.

"Thereís an excitement every day because of that," he said. "I think thereís an excitement among our players as well, for them being part of that shift."

It will have to be seismic.

USFís all-time record is 612-755 (.448 winning percentage). Florida has won 258 more games during that same span.

Of USFís nine previous coaches, one ó Seth Greenberg ó has gotten another head coaching job at a major college.

It is Wake Forest football, the Jamaican bobsled team.

"Weíve seen seasons of success here," athletic director Mark Harlan said. "Not a lot of sustained success."

Harlanís being diplomatic. USF hasnít put together consecutive winning seasons in the past 14 years.

Greenberg, another ESPN college basketball analyst, offers optimism.

"I think itís a much better job now than it was when I took it (in 1996)," he said.

But how can a program nestled near the beach, housed in a palatial 51,000-square-foot basketball facility (Muma Center) and located in the nationís third-most populous state languish for so long?

Bad philosophies, bad hires and bad timing all are complicit. Football might even be an indirect culprit.

"I think the administration has done their part," said Mark Wise, a former Bulls assistant under Lee Rose and current ESPN and Gators analyst.

"I think theyíve kind of taken away the excuses. And yes, you have the city, you have the facilities, but you are chasing tradition (of more established programs) in recruiting. And that is hard to do."

ROSEíS THORNY SITUATION

The programís greatest coup came in 1980 when athletic director Dick Bowers hired Rose a month after he took Purdue and Joe Barry Carroll to the Final Four.

"(Bowers) was very adamant in saying that they were gonna go toward a first-class program," Rose said.

At first, things went swimmingly. After years as an independent the Bulls found themselves in a fledgling conference (Sun Belt), for which Rose helped draft the constitution, and a swank new facility (Sun Dome).

But due to construction on the Dome, the Bulls could hold only games there ó not practices ó in Roseís first season.

Then, he was blindsided when a hyped Dome grand opening against Duke ó Dec. 2, 1980 ó was pre-empted by a home game against Florida A&M three days before.

"I said, ĎHow can you do that? I donít have a (game) contract,í?" Rose recalled. "(FAMU) beat us by two. Of course, that created some animosities because we had not played who we were supposed to."

Rose stuck around six years. He posted five winning seasons, beat Florida twice, earned the programís first two postseason berths (NIT) and landed the greatest scorer in program history (Robinson Highís Charlie Bradley).

In the process, Bowers was reassigned and the school succumbed to public pressure to play the University of Tampa.

For Rose, who didnít equate playing a Division II foe with "first class," that was the final straw.

"I said, ĎOkay, Iíll play Ďem, but thatís not what I came here for,í?" said Rose, who resigned in 1986.

USF has had 11 winning records in the 31 seasons since.

"I think Lee Rose had USF on the verge of perennially contending for the NCAA Tournament," said Wharton High coach Tommy Tonelli, who played point guard for Rose and later served as a Bulls assistant.

"He was a brilliant coach and way ahead of his time when it came to taking programs to the next level."

Roseís successor, Bobby Paschal, recruited Florida like mad and led the Bulls to their first two NCAA Tournament berths (1990, í92) but also suffered five losing seasons in 10 years.

Greenberg finished eight games above .500 in the ensuing seven years, leading the Bulls to a pair of NIT appearances. Meantime, USF gravitated from the Sun Belt to the Metro to Conference USA.

The hump the Bulls were trying to get over got steeper.

UABs, UNC-Charlottes and Jacksonvilles were supplanted as conference foes by Louisville, Cincinnati and Memphis ó programs with tradition and money.

Fact: The largest USF home crowd ever (a December 2001 game against Florida) remains 10,444. That same year, Louisville averaged 17,484.

The Cardinals played in the NIT that season.

"I think Ö our lack of stability within a conference has been a huge challenge for us," Gregory said.

"Bouncing back and forth, what league are we in? Okay, now weíve built a team for this league, all of a sudden now weíre playing in this league. Now weíre building our recruiting and our brand playing in this league. Whoops, that league is going with no-football schools, so now weíve got to come over here."

USF still is seeking its first conference regular-season title, in a league rife with basketball schools. Connecticut reported menís basketball revenues of $10.4 million for 2015-16, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Memphis reported $11.2 million.

USF reported $5.7 million.

UConn has won four national titles. Memphis has reached three Final Fours.

"Youíre trying to run a 400-yard sprint," Wise said. "And the other teams have a 200-yard head start."

The head start widened with the football-driven move to the Big East in 2005. USF has two winning seasons since.

"I mean, they just did an incredible job (with football)," said Greenberg, who arrived 16 months before the inaugural Bulls football game.

"Itís a blueprint for how to start a program. But itís hard to take over a job and rebuild a job and start football up at the same time, just from a personnel standpoint.

"Think about the number of jobs that had to be done. We got the job, there was a new womenís coach (Jerry Ann Winters), and youíre starting football. To be honest with you, the infrastructure wasnít built to support all of them."

These days, the physical infrastructure (if not the financial) might be an asset. The Muma Center remains the programís architectural crown jewel, and the Sun Dome renovations provided a needed upgrade.

But revenues remain modest, and fan support keeps foundering. In the 44-page, five-year strategic plan unveiled by USFís athletic department two summers ago, donor investment was listed as one of three weaknesses.

USFís average menís basketball home attendance hasnít eclipsed 5,000 in a season since 2013.

"Since football came on the scene, it has been such a focal point of the university from a marketing perspective that they have completely forgotten about basketball," said former Bulls guard Anddrikk Frazier, who remains an ardent supporter.

Mike DeCourcy, a veteran national college basketball writer for Sporting News, agrees that making basketball a priority goes hand-in-hand with success. He also notes the challenge of making both football and hoops front-burner projects.

But he adds whether a program is successful or not "begins and ends with making the right hires."

"And I donít know that South Florida has made exactly the right hire since they hired Seth," he said.

"Seth built a nice foundation. He wasnít able to quite get the ball all the way over the goal line, but he built a nice foundation and then I donít think they did very well with what was constructed in his tenure."

MISSION NOT IMPOSSIBLE?

Gregory frequently says USF possesses the components (facilities, recruiting base, supportive leadership, metropolitan back yard) needed for success.

Now comes the tricky part: putting a quality product on the floor that people will pay to watch.

"I think thereís so many aspects to building a program where people are supportive of it, are behind it, are excited about it. And in a lot of aspects in college athletics, itís more than just what goes on on the court as well," Gregory said.

"Are you running a program that people can be proud of? Ö And thatís all part of the pieces that weíre trying to put together and weíre emphasizing. You want to make sure that the effort and energy that you play with, people are excited about."

Meantime, he has vowed to make the bay area and Florida a recruiting priority, a philosophy in stark contrast to predecessor Orlando Antigua, who signed no player raised in the bay area in his three seasons.

Gregory hired former Robinson coach Scott Wagers, a veteran college assistant. Before hiring Gregory, Harlan said he was seeking a coach committed to recruiting Florida and the bay area.

"If you canít recruit your geographic footprint, you canít win," Greenberg said. "The brand isnít big enough nationally to win at the level you want."

Said Tonelli, still one of the most popular players in program history: "Your chance to get the best player you can get is gonna start in your home territory Ö where parents can come and still see their kids play, and kids still can get home conveniently."

The fact USF seems to have found some stability in a quality basketball league ó itís entering its fifth year in the American Athletic Conference ó can also help.

"Right now, the league is winnable if the commitment is made," Greenberg said.

"The league has good teams, itís got good traditions Ö but itís not so far over the top that you canít build something there, as long as you have the infrastructure and the commitment."

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.