Jones: USF's Big 12 hopes damaged by small crowd for football opener

If USF wants to be seriously considered for the Big 12 Conference, more fans better show up, starting with a 7 p.m. game Saturday against Northern Illinois
Published September 7 2016
Updated September 8 2016

Let's say I'm a bigwig with the Big 12. Let's say that I'm in charge of figuring out which schools should be considered for expansion. Let's say that, to get the lay of the land, I went to Saturday's USF game against Towson.

Know what I would be doing today? Crossing USF's name off the list.

Why? Because 22,626 bothered to show up to watch the Bulls play Towson. And 22,000 feels like 220 inside the 65,890-seat Raymond James Stadium. The atmosphere felt like a bad high school game.

Is it fair to wipe USF from consideration over one game? Of course not. But there's more to it than one game.

Yes, it was against little Division I-AA Towson. And, yes, it was Labor Day weekend, when people are off doing other things. And, yes, USF's recent history still has many doubting how good this football team is.

Still, an actual attendance of only 22,626? For the season opener? If you're a real football program, you should be getting twice that for your spring game. No wonder the normally mild-mannered coach Willie Taggart spoke up.

"You always hear people talking about being a sleeping giant," Taggart said this week. "It's not just the football team that's sleeping. Everybody's got to wake up and become that giant and make it what we know it can be."

Hear that USF fans?

"We've all got to build this together," Taggart said. "I say we all — us, our fan base, our community — we've all got to do our part."

I'm not one to tell people how to spend their money. But, if you don't go, you can't complain when no one considers you a big-time program. And you can't complain when the Big 12 decides that Houston, Cincinnati, BYU and whoever else would be a better fit for its conference.

As the Big 12 mulls expansion, and a slew of teams line up, the last thing you want to do is give the conference an excuse to pull the seat out from under you. And USF's low attendance and a dull atmosphere give the Big 12 reasons to look elsewhere.

Talk all you want about how big of a school USF is. Talk all you want about how good of a school USF is. Talk all you want about how big the market is or that it's in Florida. The bottom line is the Big 12 is going to add programs that fit in with Texas, Oklahoma and TCU.

And when you see 22,000 people show up for a game, that's a turnoff. It's an eyesore.

Look at last weekend, when Houston and Oklahoma played off-campus at the Houston Texans' NRG Stadium. True, it was Oklahoma, but did you see that game? You could feel the buzz through the TV as more than 71,000 (including some OU fans) watched Houston upset the Sooners. It felt like Houston could've joined the Big 12 at halftime.

USF will tell you to look back to when more than 67,000 were showing up to watch it play the likes of West Virginia. But this has always been USF's case. It wants you to look at 10 years ago and 10 years from now. It wants you to ignore the present.

Last season, USF was 8-5 and went to a bowl game. It averaged 26,578 at home. UCF went 0-12 and averaged 30,065.

BYU averaged 58,532. Cincinnati averaged 37,096. Temple isn't even being considered for the Big 12, and it drew 44,000. Heck, even UConn (28,224) averaged more fans than USF.

Maybe USF will someday return to the glory days of 50,000. Season tickets are up. Maybe it is on the upswing. The problem is the Big 12 isn't waiting around 10 years to see how this plays out. It is making decisions now, and it's hard to go all-in with USF.

The problem, mind you, is not with the students. USF's student fan base is strong. The problem appears to be with the alumni.

USF falls victim to the same thing that plagues the Bucs, Rays and Lightning. While local fans like the local teams, their allegiances are too often elsewhere. Tampa Bay residents, even those who went to USF, like the Bulls and the Gators. Or the Bulls and FSU. Or the Bulls and Ohio State or Michigan or Georgia.

Until fans give up their "emergency teams" — you know, the teams they root for when USF isn't playing well — USF will have a tough time consistently drawing big crowds.

It would be great to see USF in the Big 12. Having Texas and Oklahoma come to town every other fall sounds a lot more fun that having Memphis and Navy visit. And I believe that under Taggart, the team will be able to compete in the Big 12.

It's not too late for USF, but time is running out. If it wants to be considered for the Big 12, USF needs to start making itself more relevant. That starts with bigger crowds.

That starts with you. Other­wise, enjoy those games against East Carolina and SMU.