TAMPA — Perhaps the greatest achievement in USF's 2007 football season was a September upset of No. 5 West Virginia, a landmark victory that drew 67,018 fans to Raymond James Stadium for the program's first home sellout and the biggest win in a 6-0 start which saw the Bulls eventually ranked No. 2 in the nation.
The game was remarkable for several reasons, including the fact that it was played on a Friday night, to a record national television audience on ESPN2. For that reason, not everyone in town was happy with USF, and the same will be true Sept. 12, a Friday when USF hosts nationally ranked Kansas.
High school coaches across the state are upset to see college football encroaching on a night which once exclusively meant high school games. But the conflict isn't likely to end soon.
"I have very strong feelings about this issue," said Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia, a past president of the Florida Athletic Coaches Association. "The NFL waits until college season has ended to play any games on Saturdays. It's like scheduling a varsity game on a junior varsity night. I feel like the Big East is biting the hand that feeds them, and I don't think that sends a good message."
USF coach Jim Leavitt is sympathetic to the coaches' concerns, though not to the extent that he'd put up a battle or ask anyone higher up at USF to do so when ESPN books the Bulls for a Friday night broadcast.
"I don't personally like to play on Friday nights, because I respect the high school coaches and players," Leavitt said last week. "I don't want to infringe on their time, and I want them to be able to watch us. If we get an opportunity to play on TV, it's hard for me to tell our players we're going to turn them down. I'm not a proponent for it, but I appreciate the opportunity. It's a very thin line you walk. … How are you going to say no to ESPN?"
Leavitt said the school benefits from the exposure of an ESPN weeknight game, especially with recruits. He said high school coaches have expressed their displeasure to him, and those coaches have also gone well over Leavitt's head.
The FACA, speaking for 6,500 members across the state, sent a letter to Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese last fall, expressing "disappointment" that the conference plays five games a year on Friday nights as part of its TV contract with ESPN.
The letter said the scheduling conflict shows "a complete lack of consideration" for high school football, estimating that 20,000 fans who attended the USF-West Virginia game would have gone to high school games that night. Hillsborough County does not track high school attendance.
The letter also said coaches were threatening to ban Big East coaches from their campuses, warning even that "the state legislature will take action if this policy is not changed."
Tranghese wrote back in November, explaining that the Big East, having lost three teams to the ACC after the 2004 season, was "in a weakened state" in negotiating its current TV contract and had no choice but to accept a deal that included weeknight games. "I am assuming you are not suggesting that we break an existing contract," he wrote, pledging to work to negotiate "to either eliminate or reduce our Friday night appearances" in the next agreement.
The Big East's contract runs through 2013, however, and USF's emergence makes it an attractive team for spotlight games. In addition to the Friday game, the Bulls play two games on Thursday nights this year and another on Sunday; those deviations from the traditional Saturdays are less a problem because they don't interfere directly with the high school football economy.
Tranghese said he took the letter seriously, sending copies of it to ESPN as well as his member schools' presidents and athletic directors. ESPN can still choose the games for Friday nights. This will be the third year in a row USF hosts one; only Connecticut and Louisville, with four each, will have hosted more since the Bulls joined the league in 2005.
Other area coaches, including Armwood's Sean Callahan, shared Garcia's disappointment about college games on Friday night, but agreed they would never take part in any boycott that would limit the recruitment of their players.
"I don't think any of us would do anything to hurt one of our kids' chances at a scholarship," Garcia said. "I've heard rumblings of that, but at the end of the day, I don't see it happening."