Before exiting the podium late Saturday night, Bulls coach Willie Taggart, without prompting from any of the two dozen or so reporters seated before him, shifted the tone of the Memphis postmortem from grim to gracious.
The Bulls fans "did a great job today for our football team," he said. "And I know things aren't going the way that they want them to, but I do want to say I appreciate you all, and go Bulls."
As the room cleared, one scribe noted that Taggart could have thanked them all individually. Turned out, the quip wasn't as preposterous as it sounded.
Though Saturday night's crowd was announced at 30,831 (number of tickets distributed), actual attendance (number that actually crossed the turnstiles) was a season-low 14,793, according to the Tampa Sports Authority.
Even going by announced attendance for USF's six home games, the Bulls are averaging only 35,752 fans. Though slightly above the American Athletic Conference average, it's USF's lowest total in seven years.
A couple of obvious factors account for the dropoff: The Bulls (2-7) clearly are in a rebuilding phase; and their two marquee home games — Miami and Louisville — kicked off at noon, when many students still were hitting the snooze button.
"We haven't done anything to get 'em all there," Taggart said Tuesday. "We shot ourselves in the foot. I said it from Day 1, we're going to earn our fan support."
Athletic director Doug Woolard said the sparse turnouts won't keep his department — with revenue streams that also include portions of a conference TV contract — from keeping its budget balanced a 10th consecutive year.
And amid calls for his job (and, to a far lesser degree, Taggart's), Woolard remains encouraged by Taggart's groundwork for the future and the audiences of the past. In 2007, when the Bulls briefly were national darlings, two crowds (West Virginia, UCF) exceeded 65,000.
Whether that can be replicated in a less-glamorous conference — even with a winning product — remains uncertain. Until then, plenty of good sections remain available for Saturday's home finale against SMU.
"I think these things happen when you're not quite yet where you want to be competitively, and I think probably all the organizations in the Tampa Bay area have experienced that at some point," Woolard said.
"But at the same time, history has proven that our community supports our programs really well, and I certainly expect that's going to be the case as we move forward in the future."
AXE TO GRIND: More than once, men's soccer coach George Kiefer says, traditional power North Carolina has rebuffed the Bulls' request for a home-and-home series. Now, the Tar Heels have no choice.
USF (8-3-9), which has allowed only two goals during its current six-game unbeaten streak, travels to Chapel Hill for Thursday's 7 p.m. NCAA Tournament opener.
"Whatever the reason is, there's no desire to bring us in to play, and then to get the opportunity to go there. … I do think we're good enough to play there," Kiefer said. "I think my guys believe that as well, so we look forward to it."
BULL BITS: Woolard said Monday he expects to soon announce a replacement for executive associate athletic director Bill McGillis, now the AD at Southern Mississippi. … Had the men's soccer team not clinched an automatic NCAA berth by winning the conference tournament, it would've been sweating out the selection show. Its RPI is 52. … Former longtime Bulls football staffer Carl Franks is coaching running backs at Armwood (11-0), which has reached the second round of the Class 6A playoffs.