More than two decades after the University of Tampa played its last game, the city returned to the Saturday football stratosphere when USF played its inaugural contest on Sept. 6, 1997. That 80-3 rout of Kentucky Wesleyan, before a Houlihan's Stadium crowd of 49,212, occurred nearly two years to the day after the Florida Board of Regents officially endorsed a football program for USF. In observance of the 20-year anniversary of that ground-breaking contest, the Tampa Bay Times is looking back at the first Bulls' football team.
TAMPA — The most vicious blow he sustained as a USF player produced a surge of pain that seeped behind his solar plexus and into his psyche.
Jay Mize, a walk-on freshman safety, was stretching with his peers when defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz walked toward him with coach Jim Leavitt in tow. The program's inaugural game still was months away.
"(Kravitz) grabbed Leavitt and he's like, 'Hey, Coach, I want to introduce you to Jay Mize,' " Mize recalled.
"That was winter conditioning going into the spring, but I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wait, am I really on this team? If the head coach doesn't even know who I am, am I really on this team or am I just a body?' "
Using the anonymity as fuel, Mize — 5 feet 11 and maybe 185 pounds in a waterlogged uniform — attacked each day with Rudy Ruettiger gusto. He honed his technique, and his body. He flew downfield on special teams, lowered his helmet and attempted to dislodge molars.
"Relentless, fearless," teammate Roy Manns said.
By the end of the 1997 season, Mize was named the Bulls' outstanding special teams player. By the time his career prematurely ended early in September 2000, due to surgically mended shoulders and a herniated neck disc, he had amassed 127 tackles and evolved into a starting safety.
Nearly two decades later, Mize, 39, considers that formative time as valuable as any real estate he since has developed.
And he has developed more than $100 million of it.
"I literally take the same walk-on, small-guy mentality," said Mize, whose burgeoning capital empire includes the Irish 31 pubs (Mize wore No. 31 at USF) that continue sprouting across central Florida.
"Trying to make a name for yourself and create your little niche. Know what you do well, know what you don't do well. Cover up your weaknesses with your team around you. That's what I do."
Next month marks the 20-year anniversary of the Bulls' first game — Sept. 6, 1997, vs. Kentucky Wesleyan. The Tampa Bay Times has spent most of the summer trying to locate every player on that first game-day roster, to examine the trajectory their lives have taken.
Eight reached the NFL. At least two are coaching in college. No fewer than five have been high school head coaches. The squad has produced surgeons and songwriters, financiers and firefighters, inspiring tales and cautionary ones.
Few have flourished — at least in a business sense — like Mize. And few mirrored the Bulls back then — player and program toiling mightily to make a name themselves — like the East Lake High alumnus who weighed 146 pounds for the Eagles as a senior.
Honored for his academics (including a 3.85 GPA) as a senior at East Lake, Mize seriously considered attending the University of Pennsylvania. Ultimately, he couldn't resist the opportunity to help USF lay its football foundation and play in front of his family.
So he accepted an academic scholarship, walked on, and slowly began carving that identity as a special-teams kamikaze.
"Throwback player that was fearless," Marshall Smith, a linebacker on that first Bulls team, said of Mize. "Played with zero regard for his personal wellness."
Alessandra Da Pra | Times
An entrepreneurial reputation also was forged. Since puberty, Mize seemingly was always trying to earn a buck.
"There's two things that I knew I loved: football and being an entrepreneur," he said. "I think I was just wired from Day 1.
Before moving to Pinellas County as an eighth-grader, Mize sold golf balls at a course near his initial boyhood home in Hamilton, Ohio. Later, he'd buy packs of Tear Jerkers — that sour cotton candy — and sell them at Tarpon Springs Middle School.
During summers in college, he, Smith and linebacker Jason Malouf would spend weekends parking cars at the Bahama Breeze nightclub off the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
"We'd work Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and make a thousand bucks cash," Mize recalled. "Worked our butt off. We ran for 12 hours every day."
Once his playing career was finished and his finance degree completed, it was Leavitt — the coach initially oblivious to Mize's existence — who used a coaching connection to help him land a gig at Atlanta-based HomeBanc. By age 23, he had his own mortgage company.
His business career hasn't been unlike his playing one. Over-achievement and prosperity have been accompanied by disappointment and even a scare or two.
After initially flourishing as a developer, Mize was sobered (but not wiped out) by the real-estate crash of 2008, which taught him the value of diversifying. A year later, while sitting in Irish Kevin's bar in Key West, he drew the concept for Irish 31 — an upscale version of a classic Irish pub — on a napkin.
The first Irish 31 opened in Hyde Park in 2011.
Alessandra Da Pra | Times
"He was the quiet, calculating type," former Bulls receiver Corey Porter said. "Always thinking, very focused."
Today, Mize, a married dad of four living in Hyde Park, has developed commercial and residential properties throughout the bay area. In 2015, he partnered with Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson to open Ferg's Live, across the street from Amalie Arena.
And he's hoping to make Irish 31 as nationally synonymous with Irish pubs as KFC is with drumsticks. He says if he had to give reasons for his success, the first would be his faith, followed by football, though he remains nagged by shoulder pain to this day.
Maybe it's that chip that never has totally gone away.
"I'm like the ultimate underdog, that's the mentality I have," Mize said.
"And it's such a blessing for me to go through that (USF) experience, because I know if I apply that same work ethic and those characteristics to anything in life … the end result, you're gonna have some curve balls. And my football career wasn't perfect either, but at the end of the day, it all worked out pretty damn good."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow TBTimes_Bulls.