TAMPA — Most USF fans likely rose Wednesday morning anticipating news the school had, at last, formally hired Manhattan College's Steve Masiello to lead its men's basketball program.
But instead of a Rick Pitino-style coach, they got a George O'Leary-style controversy.
USF's confirmation that it had reached an agreement in principle with Masiello before disqualifying him — presumably for an inaccurate resume — represented the latest shiner to an already battered Bulls image.
Unless it can atone with a splash hire in the next few days, disillusionment is almost certain to rise within a fan base that already might lead the nation in that department.
"(The Masiello ordeal) is just another black eye for this school, and in the end somebody has to be the fall guy for it," said USF basketball alumnus Kevin Keever, who recently stepped down after 31 years on the athletic booster club's board of directors.
"It has to stop at the top, and our athletic program has been a debacle since Judy (Genshaft) became president."
USF officials remain mum on the search, but Mercer coach Bob Hoffman, who led his team to a 78-71 second-round upset Friday of No. 3-seeded Duke in the NCAA Tournament, told the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph he interviewed with USF on Monday.
Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua also is believed to be a favorite within the private search firm hired by USF. Many believe that firm, Eastman & Beaudine of Plano, Texas, should've caught Masiello's resume glitch at the outset.
The firm did not respond to voice messages or emails Wednesday from the Tampa Bay Times. New Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan, who began work Monday, didn't respond to a phone message left Wednesday.
Eastman & Beaudine was hired by USF in January — for $100,000 — to help it vet candidates for the AD job. On Monday, the Times obtained the firm's latest contract with USF, indicating it was charging a $60,000 flat fee (not including expenses) to help it find a basketball coach.
The contract was dated March 12, two days before former coach Stan Heath was told he was being dismissed. It was signed by Cynthia Visot, chief of staff of USF's board of trustees, on behalf of Genshaft six days later.
USF spokesman Adam Freeman explained Wednesday that the firm initially was contacted only to determine its availability and an estimated cost should a coaching search be needed. That information was provided March 12, but Freeman noted that the agreement wasn't signed until after Heath's dismissal.
"It's peculiar but I don't really have a comment on that," said Heath, in New York on Wednesday pursuing a possible television opportunity. "I've got to move on. I had a lot of respect for the university, and I'd hope they'd respect me as well."
Trumping any perceived impropriety over the timing of search-firm deal was the Masiello saga. Manhattan announced Wednesday afternoon that it had placed Masiello, 36, on leave as he reviews his degree status with the University of Kentucky.
A walk-on guard for Pitino at UK and later a Pitino assistant for six seasons at Louisville, Masiello's coaching bios at UL and Manhattan indicated he graduated from Kentucky in 2000 with a communications degree.
Jay Blanton, Kentucky's executive director for public relations and marketing, said that wasn't the case. Blanton said Masiello was enrolled in UK's school of communications from 1996-2000 but didn't graduate.
USF's minimum qualification requirements for the coaching position include a master's degree in an appropriate area of specialization and six years of experience at the high school level or above, or a bachelor's degree and eight years' experience at the prep level or higher.
The discovery instantly evoked memories of O'Leary's courtship with Notre Dame. In 2001 O'Leary, now football coach at UCF, was forced to resign days after being hired as Fighting Irish coach. He had academic and athletic inaccuracies in his bio.
"When you hire a firm to vet candidates, to me if there's some discrepancy, it should've been discussed during the interview process and not later," said USF alumnus Bobby Silvest, who also recently left the Bulls Club board after 10 years.
"Where was the search firm in all this that we were paying $60,000 to?"
Longtime ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said the blame starts with Masiello.
"Obviously your responsibility is to be honest and tell the truth," Vitale said. "I was shocked when I read that because I really think so much of (Masiello). I think he's a phenomenal potential coach, but that really just damages your resume big-time."
Now USF, fresh off bleak football (2-10) and men's basketball (12-20) seasons while paying $4 million in buyout money to two former coaches (Heath, Skip Holtz) and $2.75 million in settlement money to another (Jim Leavitt), is left to sift through more damage of its own.
"You're glad that you got Mark in charge because I think that's what you want when you've got administrators that, when tough times do come, can you handle those tough times?" UCLA basketball coach Steve Alford, who worked with Harlan nearly a year in Westwood, said Wednesday.
"When you're at UCLA, you go through some things on a daily basis sometimes, and Mark's always handled it very professionally and with the utmost integrity and character in mind. I know he's going to do a terrific job at South Florida."
Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report.