As an athletic director with a fledgling college football program in a pro city in the South, Cheryl Levick knows her fans point to USF's quick ascent as a dream model for Georgia State's future in Atlanta.
"Our fans have watched, and when they see a program like South Florida that has been able to move successfully, it gives them hope," she said. "It gives us an opportunity to say, 'If they can do it, so can we.' Watching what you did and how you did it, and then trying to build a program to be just like them."
As USF enters its 17th season of college football, a new generation of startups is arriving, hoping to carve out a niche and move up through the conference and division ranks much the same way the Bulls did in their first eight years.
In one sense, the Panthers are taking a first major step faster than the Bulls did — they move up to Division I-A this fall, in just their fourth season; USF did so in 2001 in its fifth season. The Bulls didn't land in a conference until two years later in Conference USA; the Panthers join the Sun Belt this fall.
Georgia State plays in an NFC South team's stadium, calling the Georgia Dome home the same way USF has Raymond James Stadium. But Georgia State faces other obstacles that the Bulls never had to worry about.
USF had only one losing season in its first 14; Georgia State has had two, going 3-8 in 2011, then 1-10 last season after a 6-5 opening season. Georgia State is even more reliant on student fees for its athletic budget, with those accounting for about $17 million of its $26 million.
Georgia State has attendance concerns that USF never had — the NCAA requires an average of 15,000 during one of two transition seasons to I-A, and the Panthers' average dropped each season, to 12,309 last year. The NCAA has never enforced the attendance requirement, but Georgia State is treating it as a hard minimum, setting a goal for 105,000 fans total for its seven home games.
USF had the momentum of Jim Leavitt from his hiring in 1995 until his firing in 2010; Georgia State had instant credibility in former Alabama coach Bill Curry, but he retired at age 70 after last season, with Indiana State's Trent Miles taking over.
Miles, who started 0-18 as a head coach at I-AA Indiana State, had winning seasons in his final three years there, earning Levick's trust to take over.
But just as USF benefited greatly from conference realignment in 2005, moving to the Big East, Georgia State landed a spot in the Sun Belt — a first step that was an acknowledged risk for Levick, who saw what a better conference did to help elevate USF's position nationally.
"When the conference realignment hit and we had that opportunity to go to the Sun Belt, you need to take those opportunities whenever you can," she said. "We knew we had to do that. We knew we had the financials behind it, but our program wasn't up to where it should be yet. We can get it there if we have sound financials and fans that back it and want it."
And while USF launched its program essentially on its own, with no real contemporaries in its early years, Georgia State is in the middle of a pack of young programs either building from scratch or ramping up from backgrounds in I-AA football (see chart).
For all its USF comparisons, Georgia State's model is probably closer to Florida International, which launched its program in 2002, made it to the Sun Belt in 2005 and will move into Conference USA this fall. They share more than a Panthers mascot — FIU is in the shadow of the University of Miami, fighting for college fans in its own city, much the same way Georgia State has to contend with Georgia Tech.
The Panthers will benefit financially from games at West Virginia and Alabama this fall, and will play at Oregon in 2015. Landing a big-name home game is the next step, but as the program and its fan base continues to grow, Georgia State is confident in the growth of other young programs around it.
"We just need to build the program," said Levick, whose school celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. "We'd love to get to be as successful as South Florida."