TAMPA — In USF's 15 seasons of football, the sight of a well-sunscreened student manager perched high above a practice field videotaping drills from a scissor lift has been a constant.
But in the wake of last year's tragedy at Notre Dame, where a 20-year-old student was killed when a lift toppled in heavy winds during practice, USF is considering other options, including the possibility of following the Fighting Irish's lead in using remote cameras operated atop 40-foot poles.
"We are looking at it. From our standpoint, we haven't had a problem, but it's something we're very leery of," coach Skip Holtz said Sunday. "It's what I always talk with (head trainer Steve Walz) about every day before we come out here: What does the lightning look like and what are the winds like. … It's definitely something everybody is exploring right now."
USF was building a football practice facility last fall when the Notre Dame accident took place, and the school was initially planning to build two permanent towers on concrete slabs between its three practice fields for about $80,000 each. But those weren't built, and USF continues to use scissor lifts as school officials weigh the merits of a remote system.
On Sept. 2, the day before the Bulls open their season at Notre Dame, officials will visit the school to see such a system in place in South Bend, Ind.
"They're unmanned cameras, all remote, joystick-controlled cameras, but because it's a prototype, it needs to be evaluated," said Bill McGillis, USF's executive associate athletic director. "Evaluated on how it handles wind condition with the stability of the camera, how it withstands weather conditions. In a climate like ours, wind is not really our issue, it's rain. … (Notre Dame) has been pleased with the system so far, but we feel comfortable with the safety of the lifts we're using. We don't have the wind problem that the plains of west Texas or the Midwest has."
Declan Sullivan, a student manager at Notre Dame, died when a video tower fell over amid wind gusts higher than 50 mph. In response, Notre Dame asked about a remote system and turned to XOS Digital, an Orlando company that has innovative systems for teams ranging from video editing to website hosting.
XOS Digital's system would cost USF about $75,000 per pole system, including the software and technology to operate the cameras by remote. With either system — a permanent structure or the remote system — USF would still continue to rent hydraulic lifts to videotape practices from the end zones; concrete slabs are in place to facilitate such a position.
Despite the obvious safety benefits, there is still a hesitation within the industry to move to a model with no camera operator atop the practice fields.
"I think the video coordinator profession, including (USF video coordinator Jamie DeGerome) and his colleagues, have not yet jumped on that bandwagon," McGillis said. "The experts in the industry want to evaluate the quality of the video, the maintenance issues.
"From what I understand, the cameras can get 350-degree access. You can almost go all the way around, which is nice. But there's a large segment of the video coordinator profession that wants to hold a camera in their hands."
Holtz said being able to videotape practice, and thus able to review drills to see how players are performing, is nearly as important as practice itself, so he's hesitant to change how he records practice until he knows it's as reliable as the current method.
"The technology is out there and getting better and better. As long as we can get the same results," Holtz said. "I think there's definitely some merit, and with what happened in South Bend, I think every team in the country is exploring the option with the … remote cameras."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.