TAMPA — Gold and green pompoms flew in the air. Rocky the bull danced to marching band tunes. Students with paint-smeared faces cheered their school's name.
Those were some of the scenes Today show viewers saw Thursday morning when the show visited the University of South Florida.
USF is one of six finalists in Today's College Challenge, which aims to find the school with the most school spirit nationwide. The winning university will get another appearance on the show, a one-hour spot during the first week of October, said USF spokeswoman Barbara Melendez.
On Thursday, nearly 200 USF students gathered at the bull fountains near the Marshall Student Center to appear with Today correspondent Sara Haines. They included cheerleaders, dancers and the marching band. Some students painted their bodies green and gold. Others wore foam hats with bull horns.
The theme of the rally was "tropical paradise," so several students also wore leis and sunglasses. Some posters read, "Welcome to Paradise USF."
"It's just a great way for us to showcase all the great things we're doing," said USF senior and student government president Brian Goff.
Goff, wearing leis and a green shirt, said the theme speaks to the university's appeal as a "slice of paradise." "We've got the palm trees, we've got great spirit,'' he said. "USF is the place to be."
The fountains, home to two bull statues, are usually off-limits. But on Thursday, barefoot students splashed in them during the filming.
Cameramen and producers held several rehearsals with the crowd before each live shot.
Amy Stetson, a producer, paced as she examined the scene. The cheerleaders were to the left. The marching band to the right. School mascot Rocky, wearing a grass skirt and coconut shells, also joined the show.
Then she spotted it among the green and gold: Someone wearing an orange shirt. University of Tennessee orange, as she described it.
"Get some green on that guy," she shouted, later kindly asking him to move away from the shot.
"We need you to go absolutely crazy," Stetson told the students through a megaphone.
They went live. Haines smiled into the camera, letting viewers know she was in the Sunshine State at USF despite a cloudy and wet morning.
"Although the sun didn't show up," Haines said, "the party did!"
On cue, the students converged. The marching band played the USF song, "The Bull." The cheerleaders shook their pompoms. The crowd chanted "USF!"
Rachel Padich, 20, was in the front row during the live shot as part of the marching band. "It was really fun," the saxophonist said. "An adrenaline rush."
During one of the live shots, SGA vice president George Papadeas carried a sign with the question, "Marry me Hoda?"
"I need you to come here to Florida so I can ask you myself," Papadeas said, before citing reasons why the show's co-host should consider the proposal: his high GPA and singing skills.
"This is great," Papadeas said as he looked at the scene. "Not only for USF, but for the whole Tampa Bay community as well."
USF president Judy Genshaft stopped by. The crowd shouted her name.
"We have the most dynamic, energetic university ever," she said. "You don't come to USF if you don't have energy."
Moments after the filming, the students dispersed, some to take off their spirit gear, others heading to class or lunch.
While walking away from the fountains, drummer Mike Mallen proclaimed to his marching band friends: "It was the best day ever."
The deadline to vote for the most spirited school is Sept. 24 at 10 a.m. Those interested can vote online at msnbc.com.