Saturday, June 16, 2018
Colleges

USF's new AD will have work cut out for him

Where does a man begin to repair a broken athletic program?

The football program is in the ditch. The basketball program is on blocks in the yard. The university is on the verge of becoming one of those forgettable programs that is lost in a forgettable conference.

So welcome Mark Harlan to town and get out of his way.

After all, the guy has work to do.

If the reports that Harlan is indeed the new athletic director at USF are true (he could be approved this morning), then it is time for him to get after it. So many things are wrong with this program, and so much momentum has been lost along the way, and no one knows it more than those who care the most.

Where does a new athletic director start?

By raising money, perhaps? Oh, that's important, of course. No one is forgetting that college football is a big business, and cash is the oil for the engine.

By better marketing? That's important, too. Over the past few years, the profile of USF athletics seems to have faded. So, yeah, a few more billboards would help. A little more ambition would be nice.

But for Harlan, or for any potential athletic director, the main challenge is this.

Somehow, USF athletics has to matter. When someone mentions the Bulls, you have to think of passion and excellence. Players have to enter your mind. It has to sound fun.

Sadly, it does not these days. USF has become just another program where not a lot is going on, where its achievement is still about 40 yards shy of its ambition. Somewhere along the way, the Bulls have become an afterthought of a program. On the national landscape, they have become the invisi-bulls.

Be honest. Over the course of the day, how often do you think about USF athletics? Yeah, you may fret about the Bucs' pass rush and the Rays' hitting and the Lightning slump and free agency and opening day and the playoff race. But the Bulls have played themselves out of your consciousness.

That needs to change.

It's a shame. The Bulls worked hard — and fast — to establish themselves as something more than a McNeese State, more than a Florida Atlantic. On the other hand, USF lost football games to both programs last year. Sheesh. It's going in the wrong direction.

For instance, the Bulls football program has won 10 games over its past three seasons. The team never finished better than 4-3 in eight seasons in the Big East. Last year, the team was 2-10 in this pre-fab gaggle called the American Athletic Conference, for crying out loud.

As a program, USF is still too young to have real tradition. But, there for a while, it had established a nice reputation as a dragon slayer, as a team that could shock some fairly impressive programs such as FSU, Auburn, Notre Dame, and others. It was an overachiever back then. Now it has become an underachiever.

Even considering its finest Saturdays, USF never has had a signature season. For instance, it has never been ranked in the top 25 at the end of a year, not even the year it was ranked as high as No. 2. Only twice in the history of its program has it had a first-round draft choice. Last year, according to the Anderson-Hester poll, it finished as the 108th best team in the nation.

And now? It has fallen behind UCF as far as momentum.

In other words, the standards need raising. Look, I like Willie Taggart as much as anyone, and he has had only one year to change things. But going 2-10 is, technically, a bad thing.

And how about the basketball team? Three years ago, Stan Heath had this team in the NCAA Tournament, but it has lost a lot of impetus over the past two years with back-to-back 12-win seasons. As for that NCAA appearance, it was the only one for USF in the past 22 seasons. That isn't enough.

For USF, this seems to be a crucial time in the history of the program. Do the Bulls accept their fate at the bottom of the American conference? Or do they use a new athletic director as an influx of energy?

There is still a school of thought out there that the Big 12 might eventually expand. If so, USF needs to be on the porch waiting. It needs to have all of its advantages — size of the TV market, the recruiting base, the potential of the program — on display. And it needs to be competitive.

A stadium on campus? USF needs to consider that, too. Maybe it would fuel the passion for the program. If nothing else, the Bulls need to at least consider the opportunity.

In other words, there is a lot of work to be done for a new athletic director. This program needs leadership. It needs direction.

It needs substance.

It needs weight.

More than anything, it needs to matter.

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