USF defensive tackle Todd Chandler grew up in Miami in a family of Hurricanes fans, and even in his third year with the Bulls, he's still working to convert family members away from the hometown allure of The U.
"I went to Buffalo Wild Wings with my uncle last night, and he was saying, 'It'd be good if y'all win, but it'd be good if y'all lose,' " said Chandler, one of several key Bulls returning home for today's game at Miami. "It's big. This is my first year back, and my family can actually come and watch me play football. They're coming to support me, so it's all love. They have USF shirts. (The Miami gear) has to stay home. They can't do that to me."
When Bulls senior linebacker Sam Barrington announced the night before national signing day in 2009 that he had chosen USF over an offer from Miami, it came as a surprise to a large gathering of friends and family, some of whom showed up wearing Hurricanes gear. Senior cornerback Kayvon Webster committed to his hometown Hurricanes in September of his senior year, only to switch the morning of signing day, choosing the Bulls with a pair of high school teammates.
Those were recruiting upsets — USF still seeks its first conference title, its first 10-win season, while Miami can woo recruits with national titles and dozens of former players in the NFL. The Bulls got a win at Miami in overtime two years ago and lost 6-3 to the Hurricanes last year in Tampa on a field goal as time expired. Each victory on the field helps the Bulls in the big recruiting battles that can hinge on such outcomes.
"When you talk about the in-state rivalries, having the opportunity to win one of those games definitely starts to put you on par," coach Skip Holtz said. "Those three schools in the state (with Florida and Florida State), they've won conference championships and they've won national championships. We've talked about some of the goals here are to build this program to that level. If you have the opportunity to win on the field, it definitely can catapult (you in) the recruiting battle, which can speed the process up without a doubt. It's valuable."
USF's other starting corner, George Baker, is from Miami, as are two of the Bulls' most productive defensive tackles in Chandler and fellow sophomore Elkino Watson. To pull recruits out of Miami, where the tradition of Hurricanes football is something players are immersed in from an early age, is something Bulls assistant Larry Scott has had consistent success with in recent years.
"That's all they've grown up around, the University of Miami, the mystique. They were really young when they had all those really great teams," Scott said. "Playing high school football down there in the shadow of that stadium, you go 'God, one day I'd like to play for the University of Miami.' It's more of a challenge down there because it's a big deal to those kids. When one has the ability to say, 'As much as I loved them as a fan, that's not the right place and right fit for me,' that's an awesome thing."
Watson grew up in Miami idolizing Hurricanes great Warren Sapp as "the quickest, best D-tackle I've ever seen," but he found more of a personal connection to the family atmosphere he saw at USF, even if playing there didn't carry as much prestige as the hometown team might have.
"I have a lot of family that are UM fans, but they're going to be cheering for me," Watson said. "Growing up, that was one of the best schools in college football. I've been a Miami kid my whole life. Being recruited by (Miami) was a big honor for my parents, to let them know I could go to the University of Miami. But I decided to come to USF, because this is where my real home is."
Miami has fallen from its dominant days of national titles, with a 5-5 record this season and the threat of looming NCAA sanctions from prominent off-field scandals. The Bulls have struggled to a 3-6 record, still clinging to hopes of a bowl game if they can win their final three regular-season games.
The programs have played each year since 2009, but that series is scheduled to end next season in Tampa, giving USF a limited window to make the big gains that can come with a head-to-head victory.
"It makes the kids see that the perception is that Miami is above the University of South Florida, but when you take the challenge and go head-to-head, it makes the kids say, 'Ooh, it's really not that big a difference as far as on the field,' " Scott said.