Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Colleges

Conference future of USF Bulls is foggy

What in the world happened?

Just the other day, it seems, the USF Bulls had the No. 2-ranked football team in the nation. Not all that long ago the basketball program was winning NCAA Tournament games. And the absolute best part? USF, a baby in the grand scheme of collegiate athletics, had become a rising star in one of the nation's power conferences, the Big East.

Then it all fell apart.

Seemingly overnight, the music cranked up on a dizzying game of musical chairs as programs throughout the country scrambled from one conference to another. Forget traditions. Forget regional ties. Forget history. It was a money grab. Universities raced 'round and 'round, pouncing onto whatever seat they could find.

When the music took its latest break, the Big East was in tatters and USF was left without a chair in a major conference. And this is where USF is today: a program with a respectable past, a gloomy present and an unknown future.

Who is to blame? Could it have been prevented? Where does USF go from here?

Who is to blame?

It would be easy to point a finger at athletic director Doug Woolard. Should he have seen all this conference realignment coming? Probably. Could he have positioned USF a little better? I don't see how.

If Woolard can be blamed for anything, it's that he placed a little too much trust in the Big East — its leaders and the other programs. He thought defectors such as Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia would consider the rest of the conference and college traditions before their interests. He perhaps relaxed, thinking the conference would come out on the other side of all this shifting with its reputation and power intact.

That hasn't happened.

"I think every school has done what they think is in their best interest, whether or not that even seems to make sense geographically,'' Woolard said Wednesday. "It disappoints me that that happens. … I think every institution did what they think they needed to do.''

Preventive measures?

When you think back, it was a bit of a surprise when USF was asked to join the Big East in 2005 after a mere eight seasons as a football program and two seasons in Conference USA. Even Woolard called it a "meteoric rise.''

Bulls fans don't want to hear this, but USF fits right in with programs such as Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, Memphis and the rest of the schools that will make up the "new'' Big East.

During this latest round of conference realignment, did USF do enough to sell itself to potential suitors such as the ACC and Big 12? USF could have talked about being one of the country's biggest universities in the nation's 14th-largest media market. It could have boasted about its facilities, including Raymond James Stadium and major renovations to the football practice complex and the Sun Dome.

It didn't help that Skip Holtz ran the football program into the ground, but USF has bigger problems than a couple of lousy football seasons.

South Florida remains to many a directional school with no national name recognition and no rich tradition. It is not, and never has been, a powerhouse, despite that one-week football trip to No. 2 in the country in 2007. Heck, it never has finished in the Top 25 in the Associated Press football or basketball polls, or won a Big East title in either sport.

Ultimately, you can see why major conferences weren't knocking down USF's door.

Where to go from here

Here's what Woolard says: "We've continued to monitor the landscape across the country. And as far as any conference realignment has occurred, we're trying to make sure we can be as good as we can here at the University of South Florida.''

Here's what that means: "We hope to have really good football and basketball teams, and we're praying a big conference scoops us up.''

Let's face it, the SEC has no interest in USF. Neither does the Big Ten, and obviously, the Pac-12 makes no sense. That leaves the ACC and the Big 12.

The ACC has no use for USF because it has a footprint in Florida with FSU and Miami. The greedy programs of the Big 12 are not about to share their pie unless USF can demonstrate it would make everyone more money, and that doesn't seem likely.

USF's best hope is the ACC has some sort of meltdown and blows up. Most of all, USF needs Florida State to get out of the ACC, leaving the ACC open to taking on another Florida school.

Woolard is sharp enough that his head isn't buried in the sand. You have to think he recognizes USF needs to improve its lot.

But here's another thing about Woolard: He's a gentleman, a politically correct administrator who doesn't want to publicly rock the boat when it comes to the Big East. Even now, Woolard is sticking behind the conference, at least publicly, calling it a solid league with a bright future.

No more Mr. Nice Guy, Doug. Time to rattle a few sabres. Time to make some noise about wanting to get into a new conference. Time to start bragging about how much your school has to offer. Other schools do it. So should you.

Maybe it won't make a difference. But it can't hurt. It's not like USF's situation can get any worse.

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