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One man, Lee Roy Selmon, helped make USF's shot at Notre Dame possible

USF coach Skip Holtz, greeting offensive tackle Mark Popek after the victory at Notre Dame, shared with all his players what Tampa Bay legend Lee Roy Selmon has meant to the program.

Associated Press

USF coach Skip Holtz, greeting offensive tackle Mark Popek after the victory at Notre Dame, shared with all his players what Tampa Bay legend Lee Roy Selmon has meant to the program.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — You stare at the final score, as unexpected as it was. You watch the head coach embrace his players and whisper thoughts in their ears. You soak in the emotion of it all, and you are tempted to say this one was for Lee Roy Selmon.

In a way, perhaps that is true. But inspiration can be fleeting, and passion can be hard to hold. So I can't say for sure if this momentous USF win was for one special man.

But I'm quite certain it was possible because of that man.

In the continuing saga of one of the most dramatic ascensions in major college football, the Bulls outlasted Notre Dame 23-20 Saturday in a game of historical opposites.

And though news of Selmon's grave condition in a Tampa hospital may or may not have played a part, it is beyond doubt that his work in the formative years of this program were instrumental in bringing the Bulls to the elevated place they reside today.

"Before chapel started (Satur­day), I talked a little bit about Lee Roy," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "All of our players know him, and I just wanted to share with them what he's meant to this program and what was going on with him now."

USF would not have been on national television Saturday were it not for the work of former coach Jim Leavitt. No reasonable person can disagree with that. The same is true of former athletic director Paul Griffin and probably a handful of others.

Yet before the world knew anything else about USF football, they knew that Selmon was the program's face and its heartbeat.

He was there before there were players. Before there were helmets. Before there was anything but a vague idea that a university of this size should be able to support football.

Selmon shook hands. He made calls. He used his fame to get in the door, then let his sincerity and integrity do the rest of his work as a university fundraiser.

Just how do you thank a man for letting you borrow his good name?

On Saturday, the Bulls tried by wearing his Buccaneers uniform No. 63 on the backs of their helmets. Some players put the number on their shoes, their pads and everywhere else.

"He and I spent about an hour together Thursday in my office and talked about a variety of topics," athletic director Doug Woolard said. "He was really excited about coming here. He was planning on coming up (Saturday) to be a part of this.

"He was talking to me about how excited he was and (how he was) glad we had the opportunity … to schedule this game. I said, 'Lee Roy, I couldn't have scheduled this game without Lee Roy Selmon because we probably wouldn't have football at USF without what you did to bring football here.' "

So how big was this for USF?

Look at it this way:

The Fighting Irish have been playing football since 1887, and this was only the 10th time they lost a season opener at home. Toddler programs just don't show up in South Bend on the first weekend of a season and dance on Notre Dame's field.

Maybe a Georgia Tech (2007) can do it. Michigan (1986) and Texas (1934), too. But I'm guessing the last time Notre Dame lost its season opener to a relatively fledgling program was when Chicago Physicians and Surgeons pulled out a 4-0 win in 1896.

South Florida has enjoyed these moments before. More than most folks realize. The Bulls have beaten Clemson, Miami, Florida State and Auburn. And those are just the games outside the conference. When it comes to facing teams ranked in AP's Top 25, they are now 6-4 in the past five seasons.

Granted, this was not an overwhelming victory by any means. The Bulls gave up a ton of yards on defense and barely found the end zone on offense. They had trouble running, passing and converting on third down.

Yet, in the end, they were smarter than the Irish. They were more disciplined. And, yeah, maybe they were luckier, but they also deserved every gasp this victory produced.

Before the game, university president Judy Genshaft said USF fans were going to be so loud that Selmon would be able to hear them back in Tampa.

Yet, hours earlier, it was mostly quiet in separate chapel services attended by Holtz. In one, he talked about Selmon with the team. In another, he and his family prayed with the pastor from his church in Tampa.

"We all prayed for Lee Roy," Father David Toups of Christ the King Catholic Church said. "They definitely won this for him."

They won it here, on the tree-lined sidewalks of a famed campus, where USF fans took pictures of each other in front of Touchdown Jesus.

Here, on the turf of one of America's most historic stadiums, where USF cornerback Kayvon Webster ran 96 yards with a fumbled ball in his arms.

Here, in the shadow of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart a few hundred yards from the stadium, where Holtz came before the game to light a candle in the Grotto.

Here, on the first weekend of a college football season, where everything Selmon had once envisioned for a commuter school came to pass Saturday.

One man, Lee Roy Selmon, helped make USF's shot at Notre Dame possible 09/03/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 4, 2011 12:39am]
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