TAMPA — The USF Sun Dome, domicile of Bulls basketball, still bears the sparkle of a $36 million facelift, which concluded in 2012 and made it a sleeker, shinier mausoleum.
It has become the place where men’s coaching careers go to die and mediocrity goes to roost. The Bulls’ average home attendance last season: 2,586. Every other American Athletic Conference school not named Tulane averaged at least 1,400 more.
"Great facility for basketball," new coach Brian Gregory told a recent booster gathering. "It’s gonna be even better when people are in it."
The Bulls last avoided double-digit losses in Obama’s first term. USF fired its previous coach in January, finished 8-23 and watched six scholarship players bolt.
The program is picked to finish last in the American Athletic Conference again.
It averages 9.8 wins the past five seasons, the fewest in men’s major college basketball. Florida A&M (7.8) is the only state Division I program that has won less.
Gregory knows winning, having experienced four Final Fours and a 2000 national title as a Tom Izzo assistant at Michigan State.
As a head coach, Gregory averaged 21 wins in eight seasons at Dayton — where he won a 2004 Atlantic 10 Conference title — but only 15 in five at Georgia Tech.
He was given the keys to this USF rig in March. But truth be told, no one has ever really gotten it cranking.
"They need a new kind of energy," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "They need it badly."
They’ve needed it for eons. In the last quarter-century, the Bulls have made one NCAA Tournament. One.
At least Gregory understands the magnitude of the challenge before him.
"There’s an excitement every day because of that," he said. "I think there’s an excitement among our players as well, for them being part of that shift."
It will have to be seismic.
USF’s all-time record is 612-755 (.448 winning percentage). Florida has won 258 more games during that same span.
Of USF’s nine previous coaches, one — Seth Greenberg — has gotten another head coaching job at a major college.
It is Wake Forest football, the Jamaican bobsled team.
"We’ve seen seasons of success here," athletic director Mark Harlan said. "Not a lot of sustained success."
Harlan’s being diplomatic. USF hasn’t put together consecutive winning seasons in the past 14 years.
Greenberg, another ESPN college basketball analyst, offers optimism.
"I think it’s a much better job now than it was when I took it (in 1996)," he said.
But how can a program nestled near the beach, housed in a palatial 51,000-square-foot basketball facility (Muma Center) and located in the nation’s third-most populous state languish for so long?
Bad philosophies, bad hires and bad timing all are complicit. Football might even be an indirect culprit.
"I think the administration has done their part," said Mark Wise, a former Bulls assistant under Lee Rose and current ESPN and Gators analyst.
"I think they’ve kind of taken away the excuses. And yes, you have the city, you have the facilities, but you are chasing tradition (of more established programs) in recruiting. And that is hard to do."
ROSE’S THORNY SITUATION
The program’s greatest coup came in 1980 when athletic director Dick Bowers hired Rose a month after he took Purdue and Joe Barry Carroll to the Final Four.
"(Bowers) was very adamant in saying that they were gonna go toward a first-class program," Rose said.
At first, things went swimmingly. After years as an independent the Bulls found themselves in a fledgling conference (Sun Belt), for which Rose helped draft the constitution, and a swank new facility (Sun Dome).
But due to construction on the Dome, the Bulls could hold only games there — not practices — in Rose’s first season.
Then, he was blindsided when a hyped Dome grand opening against Duke — Dec. 2, 1980 — was pre-empted by a home game against Florida A&M three days before.
"I said, ‘How can you do that? I don’t have a (game) contract,’?" Rose recalled. "(FAMU) beat us by two. Of course, that created some animosities because we had not played who we were supposed to."
Rose stuck around six years. He posted five winning seasons, beat Florida twice, earned the program’s first two postseason berths (NIT) and landed the greatest scorer in program history (Robinson High’s Charlie Bradley).
In the process, Bowers was reassigned and the school succumbed to public pressure to play the University of Tampa.
For Rose, who didn’t equate playing a Division II foe with "first class," that was the final straw.
"I said, ‘Okay, I’ll play ‘em, but that’s not what I came here for,’?" said Rose, who resigned in 1986.
USF has had 11 winning records in the 31 seasons since.
"I think Lee Rose had USF on the verge of perennially contending for the NCAA Tournament," said Wharton High coach Tommy Tonelli, who played point guard for Rose and later served as a Bulls assistant.
"He was a brilliant coach and way ahead of his time when it came to taking programs to the next level."
Rose’s successor, Bobby Paschal, recruited Florida like mad and led the Bulls to their first two NCAA Tournament berths (1990, ’92) but also suffered five losing seasons in 10 years.
Greenberg finished eight games above .500 in the ensuing seven years, leading the Bulls to a pair of NIT appearances. Meantime, USF gravitated from the Sun Belt to the Metro to Conference USA.
The hump the Bulls were trying to get over got steeper.
UABs, UNC-Charlottes and Jacksonvilles were supplanted as conference foes by Louisville, Cincinnati and Memphis — programs with tradition and money.
Fact: The largest USF home crowd ever (a December 2001 game against Florida) remains 10,444. That same year, Louisville averaged 17,484.
The Cardinals played in the NIT that season.
"I think … our lack of stability within a conference has been a huge challenge for us," Gregory said.
"Bouncing back and forth, what league are we in? Okay, now we’ve built a team for this league, all of a sudden now we’re playing in this league. Now we’re building our recruiting and our brand playing in this league. Whoops, that league is going with no-football schools, so now we’ve got to come over here."
USF still is seeking its first conference regular-season title, in a league rife with basketball schools. Connecticut reported men’s basketball revenues of $10.4 million for 2015-16, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Memphis reported $11.2 million.
USF reported $5.7 million.
UConn has won four national titles. Memphis has reached three Final Fours.
"You’re trying to run a 400-yard sprint," Wise said. "And the other teams have a 200-yard head start."
The head start widened with the football-driven move to the Big East in 2005. USF has two winning seasons since.
"I mean, they just did an incredible job (with football)," said Greenberg, who arrived 16 months before the inaugural Bulls football game.
"It’s a blueprint for how to start a program. But it’s hard to take over a job and rebuild a job and start football up at the same time, just from a personnel standpoint.
"Think about the number of jobs that had to be done. We got the job, there was a new women’s coach (Jerry Ann Winters), and you’re starting football. To be honest with you, the infrastructure wasn’t built to support all of them."
These days, the physical infrastructure (if not the financial) might be an asset. The Muma Center remains the program’s architectural crown jewel, and the Sun Dome renovations provided a needed upgrade.
But revenues remain modest, and fan support keeps foundering. In the 44-page, five-year strategic plan unveiled by USF’s athletic department two summers ago, donor investment was listed as one of three weaknesses.
USF’s average men’s basketball home attendance hasn’t eclipsed 5,000 in a season since 2013.
"Since football came on the scene, it has been such a focal point of the university from a marketing perspective that they have completely forgotten about basketball," said former Bulls guard Anddrikk Frazier, who remains an ardent supporter.
Mike DeCourcy, a veteran national college basketball writer for Sporting News, agrees that making basketball a priority goes hand-in-hand with success. He also notes the challenge of making both football and hoops front-burner projects.
But he adds whether a program is successful or not "begins and ends with making the right hires."
"And I don’t know that South Florida has made exactly the right hire since they hired Seth," he said.
"Seth built a nice foundation. He wasn’t able to quite get the ball all the way over the goal line, but he built a nice foundation and then I don’t think they did very well with what was constructed in his tenure."
MISSION NOT IMPOSSIBLE?
Gregory frequently says USF possesses the components (facilities, recruiting base, supportive leadership, metropolitan back yard) needed for success.
Now comes the tricky part: putting a quality product on the floor that people will pay to watch.
"I think there’s so many aspects to building a program where people are supportive of it, are behind it, are excited about it. And in a lot of aspects in college athletics, it’s more than just what goes on on the court as well," Gregory said.
"Are you running a program that people can be proud of? … And that’s all part of the pieces that we’re trying to put together and we’re emphasizing. You want to make sure that the effort and energy that you play with, people are excited about."
Meantime, he has vowed to make the bay area and Florida a recruiting priority, a philosophy in stark contrast to predecessor Orlando Antigua, who signed no player raised in the bay area in his three seasons.
Gregory hired former Robinson coach Scott Wagers, a veteran college assistant. Before hiring Gregory, Harlan said he was seeking a coach committed to recruiting Florida and the bay area.
"If you can’t recruit your geographic footprint, you can’t win," Greenberg said. "The brand isn’t big enough nationally to win at the level you want."
Said Tonelli, still one of the most popular players in program history: "Your chance to get the best player you can get is gonna start in your home territory … where parents can come and still see their kids play, and kids still can get home conveniently."
The fact USF seems to have found some stability in a quality basketball league — it’s entering its fifth year in the American Athletic Conference — can also help.
"Right now, the league is winnable if the commitment is made," Greenberg said.
"The league has good teams, it’s got good traditions … but it’s not so far over the top that you can’t build something there, as long as you have the infrastructure and the commitment."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.