TAMPA — Administrators are taking the high road, not saying much about the events that led to the announcement Tuesday that the Bulls would play a second Division I-AA team, Charleston Southern, to complete their 2009 football schedule.
But ask coach Jim Leavitt about how Rutgers, a fellow Big East school, persuaded Florida International to back out of a contracted game Sept. 19 to instead play in New Jersey, and he has to stop himself after a sentence or two.
"It's disappointing," Leavitt said, "that a conference school would do that. We had our schedule set, and then, how it happened … I don't think that's the way things should go in a conference."
FIU had a contractual right to pay $200,000 to opt out of the game, but the clause wasn't intended for such late notice, when most programs have completed their schedules. USF gave FIU a marquee opponent for the opening of its football stadium last fall, and five months later, the Panthers bailed on the Bulls to pick up a home-and-home series with Rutgers, which has recruited well in the Miami area.
"We feel fortunate that a quality (I-AA) opponent was available at this late date, and that Charleston Southern was willing to adjust their schedule," athletic director Doug Woolard said in a statement.
The Bulls and Buccaneers have met four times, most recently in 2003. CSU was scheduled to play Division II Mars Hill on Sept. 19 but was able to move the game to another season.
USF is paying CSU $450,000 to come to Raymond James Stadium.
"Our staff was very thorough and diligent in its efforts to find another (I-A) opponent on Sept. 19," Woolard said. "We contacted dozens of schools directly, conference commissioners from around the country and other college football officials in an effort to schedule (a I-A) opponent. Unfortunately, due to the position we were put in at this extremely late date, we were not able to achieve that objective."
Having two I-AA opponents (USF opens against Wofford) means that only one can count toward bowl eligibility. After going 2-5 in the Big East in 2008, and with Florida State and Miami on the schedule, the Bulls will have a tougher path to the seven wins they need to play in a bowl for the fifth year in a row.
Lose to the Seminoles and Hurricanes, and USF would have to finish 4-3 in the Big East — matching its best league record ever — just to be bowl eligible. So there's even more incentive for the Bulls when they travel to Rutgers this fall.
PLAY BALL: The baseball team opens its season Friday against Michigan in the Big East-Big Ten Challenge in Clearwater, and coach Lelo Prado wants nothing less than a Big East championship and a spot in the NCAA regions.
"I feel we have enough talent to be in a regional this year, even though we're basically a sophomore club," said Prado, who has 24 freshmen and sophomores on a 34-man roster. "I'm really excited about where the future is and the recruiting class coming in, but I'd say it's a disappointment if we don't go to regionals, because that's what I expect."
Prado will have a pair of sophomores leading his pitching rotation in Randy Fontanez and Derrick Stultz, with junior Shawn Sanford, who struggled as closer last season, making a comeback as the No. 3 starter.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.