When Bob Braman used to talk about the University of South Florida track team, it was a stretch. But it wasn't enough of one to avoid the charley horse of reality. Although track hasn't been a varsity sport, some of the Bulls' cross-country runners have traded traipsing through wooded, rolling terrains for racing around flattened, clay ovals. Over the years, they've competed in a few meets, about six a year, and even fewer events, the five longest races.
"I owned a van and I'd pile them in and drive to Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tallahassee for meets," said Braman, the cross-country coach. "At least I could write that off on my taxes, which is the only way I could afford it.
"The kids would buy their own food and pitch in for the hotel. All our rooms were two beds and a rollaway. But you need year-round competition and training. Without it, you don't go very far."
While the USF men's cross-country team has achieved some national prominence, reaching the national championship in 1989 the _ ahem _ track team, hasn't gone very far.
But beginning next year, USF is dramatically upgrading its entire running program. It will officially get track on track and, in all likelihood, close the gap between the Bulls and the nation's cross-country elite.
The NCAA presidents modified the requirements for Division I membership in January, mandating that schools must have at least seven sports for both men and women by September of 1994.
USF, which currently has six men and six women varsity sports, wasn't fazed. Officials had endorsed the addition of men's and women's track earlier in the fall.
"It was really just a logical extension of our cross-country program," USF athletic director Paul Griffin said. "We would have done it even if those reforms weren't passed."
Griffin said the budget for cross-country/track will be increased nearly 100 percent, from $110,000 to $215,000. USF will add a second full-time coach and three scholarships (from four to seven) for both men and women.
Even with that jump, USF initially will lag far behind the field _ a word USF officials don't use; it's simply track. Most schools, even though they may offer twice as many scholarships as USF, are just as specialized as USF will be when it comes to track and field.
"I don't know anyone that really competes in all the events," said coach John McDonnell of Arkansas, which offers 14 scholarships for men's cross-country/track and has an annual budget of about $300,000.
"Oh, some might have a body in an event. We don't have someone in the decathlon or the hammer, and we usually don't have someone for the javelin. Most (programs) go for the sprinters and the distance runners."
Although it could be a long road for USF nationally, it could make inroads in the Metro Conference, especially with the departure of Florida State from the conference. FSU just won the Metro title for a 15th straight time (out of 16 years) to tie an NCAA record.
Consider these numbers:
USF junior Chris Payne of Surrey, England, ran the 5,000 meters in 13:57, good enough to qualify for the NCAA meet. Senior Dror Vaknin of Fort Myers earned his trip to the national with a 29:25 in the 10,000 meters. In the recent Metro tournament, Virginia Tech's Walter Granville won the 5,000 in 14:49 and FSU's Matthew Dobson won the 10,000 in 31:32.
USF might also have extra assistance. Internationally successful sprinters Calvin Smith and Denise Mitchell, who train at USF, have volunteered their time to help coach and recruit.
"It's going to be a challenge to start the program from the bottom," said Mitchell, 25, a former four-time All-American from the University of Florida. "It's going to take hard work. But instead of me just telling them what to do, I'll show them. They'll be working along with me and go step-by-step with me. Hopefully, they'll gain some sense of what it takes to be good."
To comply with the NCAA, USF will have to increase its scholarship base to a minimum of 8.8 for the men and 10.8 for the women by September, 1994. By then, Braman said he should be able to recruit sprinters as well as athletes for the hurdles, long jump and triple jump.
"We will be a distance team at first; that's where we'll spend the money," Braman said. "Florida is one of the states with the best high school sprinters, so we should be able to get some very legitimate sprinters as walk-ons to compete in the 100, 200, 400. Obviously, cross-country will have to carry us for a while."
That part of the program could carry USF far, other coaches said. After all, the USF men have been nationally ranked each of the last two years in cross-country.
"If they go with a lot of emphasis on distance, they can make a big impact in cross-country right away," said McDonnell, whose team won the 1990 championship. "You don't have to have a lot of guys to have a really good team."
Five runners from each full team score in a cross-country meet. The individual winner of the meet receives one point, the second-place finisher two, and so on until each squad has five scorers. The team with the lowest point total wins.
"If South Florida puts five to seven (scholarships) in cross-country, well, that's more than most of us put into it," said Iowa State coach Bill Bergen, whose team is a perennial challenger for the national title and won it all in 1989. "They could be real, real competitive."
On the women's side, USF, in just its fourth year, won the Sun Belt Conference meet last season. That was the first title of any kind for the women.
Although the women are far from national acclaim, Villanova coach Marty Stern said the increase in scholarships should be a big step in that direction.
He should know.
The Villanova women moved from Division II to Division I in 1982, giving out eight scholarships. Two years later, the Wildcats were third in the indoor championship. The next year, they were ninth in cross country.
"We had an advantage: Villanova had a name, a great (men's) track tradition," Stern said. "For a kid in Brooklyn, they don't know South Florida. But I know it. They have a nice program and good coaching. There's so much talent in Florida, they should be good pretty fast."
Payne said the promise of grandeur already is spreading. He said friends and rivals from England _ runners who normally would consider the trek to only Arkansas or Iowa State _ are talking about USF.
"You don't just become a track team overnight, but we're moving in the right direction," Payne said. "Our strength will be distance, and we will, without a doubt, be a top cross-country team. (In track) We've been individuals who've run as South Florida. From now on, South Florida will be the name and people are going to remember the program."