TAMPA — By winning its past three games, USF's women's basketball team enters this weekend's Big East tournament with a 21-9 record, with momentum and with much on the line. A win in Saturday's second round would all but lock up the school's second trip to the NCAA Tournament.
For coach Jose Fernandez, there could be more on the line than that.
A win Saturday would be huge, allowing senior G Shantia Grace to go out at the same high level she helped USF reach her freshman year. The two years before that, it was an accomplishment to go to the Women's NIT. The two years since, it has been a disappointing consolation, a sign that the program hasn't moved forward, even in perhaps the nation's most difficult conference.
A loss, likely against a Marquette team also on the bubble that has beaten the Bulls twice, would make for a difficult week of uncertainty before the NCAA field is announced.
Making the NCAAs would give Fernandez leverage with athletic director Doug Woolard this spring. He is approaching the last year in a five-year contract signed in 2005, with no way of knowing if a new deal could be coming.
Fernandez, whose base salary of $125,000 is low by Big East standards, is USF's winningest basketball coach, and the women's team had never been to the postseason before he took over; this will be its sixth in a row. But a third straight NIT trip could signal that the program has plateaued, leaving his long-term future with the Bulls uncertain.
Fernandez has looked elsewhere before, pursuing an opening at UNLV last season. He has extra incentive to stay at USF another season: His contract includes a $100,000 annuity if he stays to the end of the deal.
BIG LEAP: Two years ago, Phil McGeoghan was making $12,000 as a part-time assistant coach working with the receivers at Division I-AA Maine.
It's enough of a pittance that head coach Jack Cosgrove says his coaches often work as substitute teachers in the offseason, just to help pay bills. McGeoghan, 29, played three seasons at Maine for Cosgrove, who was thrilled to get him back, if for only one season. He didn't like to see him leave the college ranks to take a job at the Naval Academy Prep School, but he understood when McGeoghan had a chance to make $45,000.
"I thought it was a risky step for him, leaving a college job, but it's worked out for him," Cosgrove said. "I told him when he came here that I knew he wouldn't have a long stay with us."
Now, seeing his former player as an assistant coach at USF, Cosgrove isn't surprised and said McGeoghan will make a quick impression.
"Phil's got talent," he said. "And he will be a better recruiter than he is a coach. He's working under a coach he's played for (Mike Canales), and he'll be a sponge, soaking up everything. He's a rising star, and I think you'll see him grow and grow."
BIG WEEKEND: Softball lost twice last weekend at Florida by a combined 17-1, giving up 24 hits. Pitching, thought to be a strength for USF, has been shaky, with a team ERA of 2.67, up a full run from last season, though that was before splitting a doubleheader against Maine on Tuesday (7-1 win, and 1-0 loss). The Bulls have a busy weekend with five games at Clearwater's E.C. Moore complex for the 16-team USF Under Armour Invitational.
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.