Monday, May 28, 2018
Colleges

New blood brings new excitement to USF Bulls

TAMPA — Standing before a south Lakeland lunchtime audience of roughly 75 USF supporters of varying allegiance, new Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan ditched his microphone and let his natural, nonfortified decibels do the work.

What Harlan lacked in amplification, he made up for with assertion.

"I won't use the word 'potential' anymore," Harlan told his listeners as football coach Willie Taggart, men's basketball coach Orlando Antigua and women's golf coach Marci Kornegay sat nearby.

"The expectation here at this school is we've got to win … so you're not going to hear me use that word again."

The next day, the gospel according to Mark was delivered to the Rotary Club of Clearwater. Taggart and Antigua also spoke, the former getting so impassioned about offseason workouts — during which 56 players notched personal bests in the weight room — the emcee had to cut him short. A few hours later, Antigua delivered the first pitch at a Rays game.

"We're going to make losing feel really, really uncomfortable in our building," Harlan told the Rotarians.

Say this for the new blood in the Bulls athletic department: It's circulating, and it's oxygen-rich. For a fan base gasping for hope, it seems the ideal transfusion. For now, anyway.

"I'd say it's excited me, I'm not skeptical at all," said Robert Loftin, a Polk County bank executive who heard Harlan speak at the Lakeland luncheon. "Maybe some of it's wait-and-see, but I think it's time to get some new blood in athletics."

The past 18 months have been unlike any other stretch in the Bulls' 49-year athletic history, a paradoxical blend of futility and optimism.

While some nonrevenue sports (tennis, soccer, softball) flourished, the football and men's basketball teams combined for 14 victories, and the baseball team missed the postseason for the 12th consecutive year.

But its constituents seem rejuvenated. During those same 18 months, USF hired Taggart, bid farewell to retiring AD Doug Woolard and hired Harlan from UCLA to replace him following a nationwide search.

In turn, Harlan hired Antigua, reassigned baseball coach Lelo Prado to an administrative role and hired Illinois State's Mark Kingston to replace him.

"I love the vibe here, there's no question about it," Kingston said upon his introduction last week. "It feels energetic, it feels upbeat, everybody's excited about where it's going."

Now, USF's athletic director and three of its most prominent coaches all are 45 or younger. No other major program in the South — and no school in any of the five power conferences — can make that claim.

"In the beginning, I was very concerned," said Mike Charles, a current board member and former president of the USF Bulls Club.

"But I luckily have been blessed with the opportunity to actually be able to spend some time with our new AD, our new basketball coach, and actually I know Willie … and I'd have to say I'm very excited about the future, and I think that things are going to get back in shape at USF again.

"I'm definitely convinced that our new AD is going to get the attendance situation going, Willie's going to get the program going, and our basketball team's going to move forward into areas that maybe we've never been before."

The apparent revitalization can be quantified in more than mere sound bites.

The annual Bullsfest, a fundraising dinner and auction, recently netted $198,000. Earlier this month, the Bulls Club announced that its goal in the $100,000 Matching Gift Challenge already had been met, triggering the donation of another $100,000 from an anonymous family.

And attendance for the "Around the Horns" coaches barnstorming tour stops, such as the one in Lakeland, is higher across the board this summer, athletic department spokesman Brian Siegrist said. The next stop, which includes a dinner cruise in Sarasota, is set for Tuesday.

"Sometimes young blood's a good thing," said former Bulls and Bucs long snapper Ryan Benjamin, now football coach at River Ridge High.

"The older coaches definitely have a lot to bring to the table, of course, but I don't think young necessarily is a bad thing. I think these guys know how to relate to players very well. … Coaches can't be set in their ways. You've got to be open to change, and a lot of times a young mind-set is probably a little more open to that."

Whether patience accompanies the newfound buoyancy remains to be seen.

While assuring fans mediocrity won't be tolerated, neither Harlan nor his coaches have promised an immediate resuscitation of their programs. Many prominent preseason magazines project the football team to miss the postseason a fourth consecutive year.

Meantime, six scholarship players from last season's basketball team have departed since former coach Stan Heath's dismissal in March. Some of the new players are either long-term projects or transfers who must sit out next season. In the case of hoops, things might actually get worse before they improve.

Potholes of adversity still loom.

Still beats a vortex of despair.

"These guys have goals that they're far from attaining. Their goals are to be exceptional in every way," Charles said.

"I think Mark's going to put an operation together there and get this community behind our team. But you know, he's got to have some coaches that are going to win, and I think he's got some coaches that are going to win."

   
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