TAMPA — Before USF athletics had the revenue that comes with football or membership in a top conference like the Big East, the Bulls had George Steinbrenner to help them out.
Dick Wittcoff, one of USF's top supporters, said it was the late Yankees owner who first got him involved with USF athletics, inspiring him with the selflessness of his donations in the late 1970s.
"George was very good friends with (then-athletic director) Dick Bowers, and if Dick saw he was going to be in the deficit on the budget, George would write a check to cover the deficit," Wittcoff said.
Steinbrenner wanted a student presence on the road for the Bulls, so for many years, when the Sun Belt conference tournament was in Charlotte or Birmingham, he again helped the Bulls with his checkbook.
"George would pick up the tab for the cheerleaders and two buses full of students," Wittcoff said. "Not only the bus tickets, but the game tickets and their hotels."
Steinbrenner spent about $100,000 to donate the lights for USF's baseball stadium, Red McEwen Field, in 1977, and gave the Bulls another source of revenue when the Tampa Yankees played their home games at the Red in 1994-95 with the likes of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera while their current home, Steinbrenner Field, was being built.
"He has done a ton for USF athletics," said baseball coach Lelo Prado, who also saw Steinbrenner's generosity when he was coach at the University of Tampa.
"The sports world lost a legend today," USF athletic director Doug Woolard said Tuesday night. "George was a great friend and philanthropist to USF and Tampa Bay. As we celebrate his successes in the sporting world, I also hope we all take time to applaud his generosity and the giving spirit fostered throughout his life."
Wittcoff said Steinbrenner had a personal interest in investing in students, one that has been passed on to another generation of boosters at USF.
"He believed in future generations -- he inspired me to give back to the community the same way," he said. "At one point, he had 22 students at USF that he was paying (tuition) for, and none of them were athletes. The only thing they had in common was they couldn't afford to go to USF and George had gotten wind of it."
Steinbrenner's involvement with USF predated his athletic presence -- his first philanthropy was with USF's music program, with endowed scholarships and a major presence in an annual fund-raising pops concert at Curtis Hixon Hall. Steinbrenner would pay to bring in top acts like Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli for the event.
Joe Tomaino, who has been involved in USF's fundraising efforts since the 1960s, remembers that several years into the event, at a meeting of organizers, the orchestra conductor brought up that he hated ending the concert every year with the "Stars and Stripes Forever" and was hoping to end with a different song. Tomaino and others at USF feared for a moment the comment might send away the fiercely patriotic Steinbrenner, who was literally born on the Fourth of July, but the Yankees owner remained calm.
He invited the conductor to finish his performance one song early, and asked if he could be the guest conductor for the final song. Sure enough, Steinbrenner took the stage for the final song, starting a tradition on the spot.
Steinbrenner's generous impact on USF athletics in its fledgling days isn't fully known or appreciated by its current fans, said Wittcoff, who would have liked to see the Bulls' $18 million athletic facility, built in 2004, named in his honor.
"With everything George did for the university, when they built the new facility, there should have been no hesitation to name it after George," he said. "What that man did when we had nothing, he was a giant. The history isn't passed on from generation to generation, and the ones that knew what he did are all gone. What he did was so legendary."
Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman .