TAMPA — The University of South Florida has taken measures both creative and benevolent to embrace — a Bull-hug, if you will — one of the most vital segments of its football fan base.
In August alone, USF players, coaches and athletic administrators have courted the student body with pizza, pep rallies, T-shirts and team bonding events. The players even spent a recent day helping students haul their belongings back into their respective dorm rooms.
Not that the heavy lifting ended there; the school has picked up the tab for free bus service to get on-campus students to and from home games. Collectively, it might represent the most sincere plea for devotion short of dropping to a knee.
"We want to make sure the football team is in front of the student union Fridays before games, to make sure everyone knows we've got a game (Saturday)," first-year athletic director Mark Harlan said. "We want to make sure they know how to get to games, and then we want to make it affordable for those that can."
Yet if recent history and national trends are any sign, droves of students still could leave the Bulls standing at the altar — or, in this case, turnstile.
Nationally — from Columbus, Ohio, to Corvallis, Ore. — student attendance at college football games is dwindling. Some of the drop-offs are subtle, others staggering. Few are likely more profound than USF's.
According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of about 80 college programs, USF's average student attendance per home game dropped 69.4 percent from 2009 (9,100) to 2013 (2,784). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls' record plummeted in that same span, from 8-5 ('09) to 2-10 ('13).
Not that the Bulls are unique in their plight.
The University of Florida, which suffered its first losing season since 1979 in the fall, has experienced a 22.4 percent decline in the same span, even though it sold the fourth-most student tickets in the nation, according to the Journal. Even reigning national champion Florida State University suffered a 6.1 percent dip.
Prompted by the barren patches at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley sent a personally signed letter to students in early August, informing them that more than 2,000 tickets for the 2014 football season remained available. The Gators have sold the full allotment for today's game against Idaho, but a limited number were unclaimed and available, the school said.
A Gators student season ticket package this season is $105 — $15 per game, up $5 a game from five years ago.
"It's an issue we're all dealing with," Foley said.
But why, especially when total attendance for college games is at an apex and interest nationally has been stoked by the creation of a four-team Division IA playoff?
Steep prices? Disillusionment with team performance? The convenience of watching on a sofa or in an air-conditioned sports bar as opposed to an outdoor sauna?
Maybe all of the above.
"If you look in our past, if you look at the trend of attendance, it goes about the same as the trend of how the football team is performing, and that's something we're trying to change," said 22-year-old senior Tyler Kovel of Clearwater, president of the USF Student Bulls Club.
"The students have never been really able to relate to the football team, and I think that's something (Coach) Willie Taggart has done a great job of changing."
Regardless of the reasons, athletic programs are scrambling for solutions like Johnny Manziel on a fourth-down blitz.
This month, the Southeastern Conference announced initiatives at all 14 schools to help "improve the fan experience" at games, all in an effort to get more fans in seats.
At least six SEC schools are adding improvements to video elements and production, as well as new HD video boards in some stadium renovations. Others are addressing specific groups of fans, including expansions to Kids Zone areas, implementation of young-alumni programs and special ticket opportunities for students.
At least four schools, including Florida, added full-time staff members to focus on the fan experience or the establishment of fan councils and committees.
This week, Gator players were on hand at the areas where student tickets are distributed, thanking buyers for their support.
"It's just showing that we love their support," said sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who starred at Wharton High School in New Tampa. "We play for them, they help us out in the games. Them being loud helps us on defense, and we love their support."
Meanwhile, back in Hargreaves' hometown, the efforts of Harlan and Taggart to endear the football team to its on-campus fan base have reached art-form levels. Last weekend, the Bulls staged something called "The Huddle," in which students were invited to mingle with players in the Selmon Athletics Center lobby and hear an address from Taggart. At lunchtime Friday, the Bulls staged their first "Marshall Mayhem," another pep rally — with free food — in front of the Marshall Student Center. The first week of preseason practices were open to the public.
Student tickets for USF games are included as part of their student fees, which can reach a few hundred dollars per pupil.
"You can't ask the students to attend games if you're in turn not really making it critically important for the student-athletes to participate on campus beyond their sports," Harlan said. "I really think that goes both ways because the more they get to know the student-athletes, the more they're apt to support."
Yet all the goodwill could be no match for humidity in September or a cold spell in the win column.
Shane Metzler, a junior accounting major at Florida, remains a student season-ticket holder even as close friends have opted out.
"They said they weren't really interested in sitting out in the hot sun, being miserable by the football team," he said. "They just thought they'd rather sit in a sports bar and watch it this year. I thought they were crazy, but that's what they've decided to do."