TAMPA — The decade-long tenure of USF athletic director Doug Woolard, widely acclaimed and vilified at various intervals, is ending.
The school confirmed Thursday evening that Woolard, 63, will retire when his current contract expires in June 2015. According to a statement released by the school, he'll continue work on several projects and assist with the transition to new leadership.
How long he remains active as AD depends on the time frame of hiring his replacement, USF spokesman Brian Siegrist said. A national search for a successor starts immediately.
"I have been truly blessed to enjoy a 40-year career in education and athletics," Woolard said in a statement released by the school.
"After (wife) Cherrie and I spent some great quality time with our family over the holidays, I have been visiting with the president (Judy Genshaft) for the last few weeks about initiating this plan."
Woolard's tenure will be remembered for its renovation and expansion of athletic facilities, but also for declining performance and attendance in football and a drop in stature in conference affiliation.
Longtime USF booster Frank Morsani, for whom the Bulls' football practice facility is named, said he spoke earlier Thursday with Woolard and didn't get the sense Woolard was forced out.
"I don't get that impression at all," Morsani said. "I don't think that's the case. That's my personal opinion."
Woolard, hired from the University of Saint Louis in May 2004, signed a three-year contract extension in the summer of 2012. In addition to a base salary of slightly less than $600,000, it included a series of incentives tied directly to the success of the Bulls teams.
It arrived on the heels of the Bulls softball team reaching the College World Series and the men's basketball team earning an NCAA Tournament berth.
But public heat has intensified on him since.
The football team has managed five total victories in the ensuing two seasons, and Stan Heath's basketball team followed its breakthrough season with 12 victories last winter.
Average announced attendance for USF's seven home football games last fall was 34,701 — the program's lowest in seven years. Meantime, the school appeared hapless during radical conference realignment as the Big East was dismantled.
While fellow Big East members such as Louisville and Cincinnati openly lobbied for spots in other conferences, fans and boosters perceived USF took a more passive approach.
It ended up joining the American Athletic Conference, which is losing its marquee program — Louisville — to the ACC.
"Quite frankly, the program is not up to standards in my mind, both football and basketball," said longtime booster Mike Charles, a former USF student who still owns 20 football and six men's basketball season tickets.
"I think that some of the programs have not done as well as they should've and maybe they need some new direction."
Heath, reached Thursday evening, declined comment until he could speak directly with Woolard. Football coach Willie Taggart couldn't immediately be reached. Women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez declined comment.
Aesthetically, Woolard's efforts were almost universally applauded. He oversaw nearly $70 million in new or renovated facilities, more than half of which was spent to refurbish the 33-year-old Sun Dome.
The athletic department also doubled its budget with steady revenue growth, and watched its overall NCAA Academic Progress Rate rise from 926 to 983 on his watch, according to the school.
Woolard told the Times in November he expected a balanced budget a 10th consecutive year.
"The one big thing Doug did was really help our facilities," said alumnus and longtime booster Jim Ragsdale (Class of '81), who, with wife Laurie, has supported an athletic scholarship the last decade.
"The last couple of years have been very disappointing with the overall record in football and men's basketball, which are revenue sports. But hopefully people look at the big picture and not just recent history."
For legions of fans and boosters, therein lies the conflict: Even as USF's facilities grew more palatial, many say he and Genshaft allowed Bulls football to be leveled.
In January 2010, Woolard fired Jim Leavitt, who built the Bulls program from scratch and lifted them to a No. 2 national ranking at one point in 2007. A three-week probe concluded Leavitt grabbed a walk-on tailback by the throat and slapped him in the face at halftime of a game.
His replacement, Skip Holtz, went 16-21 in three seasons, struggled to recruit locally, and was fired in December 2012. Woolard had signed him to a five-year contract extension at $2 million annually after a 5-7 2011 season.
Taggart was hired to replace him, and struggled through a 2-10 rebuilding season last fall.
"I talked to him today; it's just been a hard slog and he's tired," Morsani said of Woolard.
"There's nothing to read between the lines. He just made a decision that over holidays he talked to his family ... and he just decided it was time that he kind of did something else or did nothing — whichever he wants to do."
Speculation about a potential successor immediately focused Tampa Bay Sports Commission chief Rob Higgins, a USF and Jesuit High alumnus whose group recently landed the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four — for the second time in five years — and the 2017 college football national title game.
Other possible candidates: Greg Phillips, vice-president and athletic director of Bradenton's IMG Academy; and FAU athletic director Pat Chun.
"Doug has led USF athletics with integrity and focus, as well as a deep commitment to our students, coaches and the entire USF community," Genshaft said in the USF statement.
"He was instrumental in transforming our athletic district facilities and I want to thank Doug for his achievements in leading our program over these years. We're very appreciative of his efforts on campus and his participation in the larger Tampa Bay community.
"We look forward to a bright future ahead."
Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report. Joey Knight can be reached at (813) 226-3350 or [email protected]