TAMPA ― The USF football losing skid, spanning eight games and nearly 11 months, contains a surreal component.
Turns out, the coach who inherited some of his predecessor’s best players also inherited his worst scenario.
Charlie Strong stands at approximately the same precipice on which Willie Taggart teetered only four autumns ago.
“It’s time for us to get back on the winning track,” Strong said Monday.
Taggart had nearly run out of track in 2015. The Bulls’ third-year coach, working for an athletic director who didn’t hire him, had lost 21 of his first 28 games, including three of his first four in ’15. Widespread presumption was, his future hinged on a home game against Syracuse.
“Well to listen to everybody, I was getting canned (with one more loss),” Taggart said last year. “No one told me that, but what everybody else was saying was, that was what was gonna happen.”
You know the rest. Against the Orange, Taggart chose to unshackle quarterback Quinton Flowers, finally allowing him to improvise. USF won, 45-24, starting a 17-4 stretch that catapulted Taggart to the Power Five tax bracket.
Four years later, Strong has backed into his own Syracuse-type scenario. Whereas Taggart lost 21 of his first 28 games as Bulls coach, Strong won 17 of his first 19.
Yet an eight-game skid dating to last October, lowlighted by one offensive touchdown in the first eight quarters of 2019, has many questioning if Strong ― a third-year coach working for an AD who didn’t hire him ― can or should survive a ninth consecutive defeat.
The sense of urgency “is very high,” defensive end Darius Slade said.
“I feel like right now it’s at its peak. The coaches don’t even have to tell us. The defense is just texting and making a group chat, everybody’s getting in the meeting room trying to meet, watch film, anything we can do to get an extra tab on the opponent.”
That opponent, Division I-AA South Carolina State, receives a $400,000 financial guarantee for playing Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. If the Bulldogs exit with a paycheck and upset, public unrest will reach an apex.
And the Bulls have a bye the following weekend.
All of which suggests...well...who can say? No one inside the Selmon Athletics Center (home to USF’s athletics administration) has said or even hinted that Strong ― who receives $2.5 million this season ― must win Saturday to keep his job.
Strong’s standard state contract indicates he would be owed 20 weeks of his $500,000 base salary if he were dismissed. But the school confirmed last November that Strong has a buyout arrangement with the USF Foundation, the school’s private fundraising arm.
As a direct-support organization, USF Foundation records are confidential and exempt from disclosure under Florida law.
Maybe those terms will be moot. Maybe that Syracuse-type scenario is repeated, and the Bulls prevail Saturday to spark aresurgence.
“There’s talent there,” offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell said. “There’s enough people to get it going. We’ve just got to play at a lot higher level, play faster, play freer, don’t think so much.”
While no announcement has been made, redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud seems poised to get his first start after providing a spark (4-for-5, 90 yards, one touchdown) in the second half of Saturday’s 14-10 loss at Georgia Tech.
While no one is comparing him to Flowers yet, maybe McCloud offers the kick-start Bell’s system desperately needs.
Still , a must-win sentiment lingers, thick as early-September humidity.
Maybe even suffocating.
“It’s big,” veteran cornerback Mike Hampton said. “We’re not used to starting the season 0-2, so it’s really big.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.