Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan sat down Thursday morning to chat about a smorgasbord of topics, from the proposed USF Football Center to football scheduling to his own future. Here are excerpts from that Q&A:
Coach Charlie Strong made a pretty impassioned talk to the Board of Trustees regarding the on-campus football facility. What's the next step?
"I thought Charlie did a great job in front of our Board of Trustees. I was up at the NCAA transfer working group (in Indianapolis), so I was unable to attend. But I was on the phone so I got to listen to his passionate (address). There is a process in all of this, and because of our successful fundraising to date — close to $7 million raised — we were at a point where we could feel comfortable going out with the RFP (Request for Proposals) for design for both the indoor (facility) and also the operations together, because we want the same designer to do both.
"So where we are now is, next week that will go out onto the street for obviously folks to take a look at and submit us proposals back to design the facility … but now it's time to bring in the actual architect to put that into place. So we're really excited. We've got a lot of work to do to raise the funds. We are able to look at this in two phases. We could build the indoor facility, which could be around $14-15 million with design included in that, and then get going on that as we're continuing to fund-raise for the operations center. The end of the day, Charlie and I both agree that the indoor facility is the priority of that project, knowing that having a specified weight room and training room for football, along with operations, is critically important."
So nearly $7 million has been raised so far. You encouraged by that?
"Yeah, very encouraged, because it shows the high-level interest. We also know that we have some tremendous people ahead that we either are speaking to or will be speaking to. Doesn't make it easy; we are challenging people in a profound manner to invest in the program. But so far I couldn't be more excited about where we're at."
You will probably know a lot more once you get proposals for the design back, but is it conceivable we could see a groundbreaking in 2018?
"A little early for me to commit to that, but I do think later in the spring we'll be able to really pinpoint that date."
Speaking of revenue streams, I hear that naming rights for the Sun Dome could be close to being finalized. Is that accurate?
"We have been working on naming rights at USF for many, many years. I know when I got here — I think it was the first week — that it was pointed out that it's something that needed to occur, because it was a part of the overall … financial model in the renovation of the Sun Dome. So we've been working really hard on it. Then we partnered with Tampa Bay Entertainment Properties last spring; it was a real focus when I met with their leadership that they had focus on it, along with my team. So it's safe to say that we've really had engagement in that, and I'm really excited about the possibilities that could be forthcoming."
Regarding your recent (non-conference) football game contracts: The buyout clauses have been fortified, making it more difficult for schools to opt out of the contracts. Is it more difficult to find Power Five schools who are willing to abide by those kinds of things? Is it tough to find opponents?
"Football scheduling's always been challenging because there are really no rules. There's no real pattern to it. Some schools, the athletic director totally does it. Some schools, the football coach totally does it. Some schools it's a combination of both, which is always how I've operated. So you first have to find someone who has matching dates. And then you've got to find someone who is willing to maybe come to your community or not. … So it's always been a complicated process.
"But to answer your question … our greatest challenge right now at USF to get brand-name opponents is, we're really good. We're really good, and what I have heard from many a school — and some of them are very good friends — is, 'We're trying to find the upside. If we beat you, that means we played an unbelievable game and it was really hard. If we don't beat you, which could be a very good possibility, no one will forgive us for it.' That's our objection. I have lines on both of those that I try to talk people through."
I'd like your thoughts on your rival to the east (UCF) proclaiming itself a national champion.
"I think that they had such a great football season, and their base is so excited about everything. You have to tip your hat. A couple of years ago we played there (a 44-3 Bulls rout in 2015) and … the environment was not good, not only for them but for the rivalry. And then just to see coming back 24 months later in that environment that we played in, which was the best football game I've ever been to (a 49-42 UCF triumph), it seems like everybody in our industry plus everyone else was watching that game. So I get on many levels their excitement. And I've wondered, and I've talked to people here, 'What would we have done?' And I can't say for sure I would've done all of that, but I promise you this: We would've celebrated in an extraordinary way with our base, with our community, with our student-athletes, with our partners. Because to go undefeated in what I believe is a growing, strong conference is a heck of a thing."
You're wrapping up Year 4 here at USF. You signed a five-year contract (in 2014). Have you initiated any talk about an extension? Where does that stand?
"You know, it's funny. I don't think of myself very often in this job. You can't. You've got too many students and too many coaches and too many donors and too many awesome people that you work with. The president (Dr. Judy Genshaft) and I work on a lot different projects, I imagine she and I will be talking about what all the future looks like. But (wife) Carolyn and I are so happy here. I'm so honored by what has happened here, our growth."
(Harlan then volunteered his thoughts on the men's basketball program, currently 8-19 under first-year coach Brian Gregory.)
"I'm really enthusiastic about what I am seeing from our men's basketball program in terms of their work off the court. … So we had the (program's) highest GPA ever, I'm told, in the fall semester. Their citizenship has been really noted. I'm on campus quite a bit, I hear from faculty members, those kinds of things. And that has improved in all regards. Their work, their interactions, their leadership on my SAAC (student-athleted advisory) committee — this is a different group of men than I've been around. And I see competitiveness on the court; we need it for 40 minutes, as Brian Gregory would say. But it reminds me of some of the things I saw in football. All of the things I've mentioned were what turned first. … And then, as confidence started rising in those areas, we started seeing competitiveness along with obviously and infusion of kids that were really good, and also had the same kind of citizenship. So I think the grind is ongoing by all the people working in the program including the student-athletes. But I'm so impressed with the people that keep coming to men's basketball games and believe in what we're trying to do. We're just committed to supporting Brian and his efforts in so many different ways, because I believe strongly that the right guy is at USF in all regards."