New voice, same plight: Charlie Strong seeks local support
At times, USF's chronic football attendance issue festered like a nagging blister in Willie Taggart's otherwise buoyant psyche.
Once the Bulls had turned the corner on his watch, brandishing one of the most dynamic offenses in all of Division I, Taggart periodically called out the area for failing to support the team in-person. Even women's hoops coach Jose Fernandez chimed in with some castigating of his own.
Five months before his first game, Charlie Strong hasn't reached a similar level of frustration -- yet. But it's clear he understands the plight of his predecessor, who watched the Bulls draw an average actual turnout of 27,601 fans for seven home games in a breakthrough 2016 season.
"I think about last year, we won 11 games, and there's no reason for our fans to not come out and support this football team," Strong said after Saturday's situational scrimmage on campus.
"And we have some great professional teams here; not taking anything away from them. But you have a great university here also, and it needs your support and it needs everyone's support."
Saturday's scrimmage, though open to the media, drew no local TV news outlets and only three off-campus news organizations (including the Tampa Bay Times). ESPN reporter Chris Low also attended Saturday as part of a prearranged visit.
The small media turnout prompted one reporter to ask if Strong -- whose team is a trendy pick for a New Year's Six bowl bid this season -- felt the Bulls are under the radar.
"You always want to be under the radar," Strong said. "But...what we have to do is make sure that our fans, they understand what we're trying to get accomplished and where we're trying to go. And we're gonna need their support."
Strong has firsthand knowledge of the unique dynamic in play at USF. Like conference rivals Cincinnati and SMU, it's nestled in a pro-sports community and shares a state with some of the nation's most prominent college football brands (Florida, FSU, Miami).
Shared allegiances come into play, too, as Strong is learning.
"I always tease my friend, he graduated from here and he supports Florida," Strong said. "Give me that support. And I didn't even know it 'til I got the job. He called me and says, 'Hey, me and my wife both graduated from the University of South Florida.'
"I said, 'So you graduated from South Florida but every game I saw you in Gainesville.' ... We won 11 games last year, and some people didn't even know that. But we have got to get that explosion and we have to get everyone on board and everyone involved."