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Blissful, bumpy journey to game day for USF’s Jeff Scott

After nine surreal months on the job, few things can faze the Bulls' resident positive thinker
USF first-year coach Jeff Scott runs through drills during the Bulls' lone spring practice in March. Campus was closed due to the COVID-19 crisis shortly thereafter.
USF first-year coach Jeff Scott runs through drills during the Bulls' lone spring practice in March. Campus was closed due to the COVID-19 crisis shortly thereafter. [ Times ]
Published Sep. 11, 2020|Updated Sep. 12, 2020

TAMPA — An ESPNU audience likely will see Jeff Scott’s most animated version of himself Saturday night. During his debut as USF coach, Scott’s bound to pace and perspire, fist-bump, perhaps even fume.

But regardless of what transpires against The Citadel, fans can bet their big screens on what he’s certain not to do.


When you’ve spent nine months walking a seismic college landscape, when you’ve concurrently immersed yourself in social justice and social distance, when you’ve wept over the birth of your biological son and the anguish of your surrogate ones, nothing really makes you bat an eye anymore.

“There’s not much that you can tell me or (athletic director) Michael Kelly that could get us to blink,” Scott said.

“You could tell me whatever you want to say, that we’re canceling the game this week and we’re flying to Hawaii instead, and we’ll say, ‘All right, good, let’s go put the plan together.’”

Scott’s situation is hardly unique. Twenty-three other Division I-A programs hired new coaches in the offseason, which happened to be the most turbulent one of the modern era. Hardly any had a spring camp to speak of. All have had to install their systems virtually, to build relationships via video conferencing.

“There’s still some things that we’re having to do during fall camp to make up for that lost time and just base understanding of expectations in certain situations,” said FSU’s Mike Norvell, another first-year coach. “It’s been a work in progress.”

They have marched and mourned with their new players, empathizing as kids opted out and agonizing as schedules disintegrated. Amid all the upheaval, each has coped in his own way.

Scott’s way: adhering to one of his team commandments.

Maintain a positive attitude no matter what the circumstances.

“I’m a big believer in finding joy in everything that you do,” said Scott, who became a father for the second time Aug. 10 when wife Sara delivered an 8-pound, 12-ounce boy. “That’s really important to me. Are there gonna be tough days? Yes.”

The upbeat, blink-proof approach reminds Kelly of one of his humanities professors at Wake Forest, a woman of contemplation and conviction who exposed the pupils in her Liberation and Literature course to assorted book genres.

Maya Angelou even periodically invited her students to her house.

“She would always open up class by saying, ‘Nothing human can be alien to me,’” recalled Kelly, who graduated from Wake in 1992.

For as much as 2020 repeatedly has challenged Angelou’s axiom, Scott seems to have embraced it.

Because he honored his commitment to remaining a Clemson co-offensive coordinator through the Jan. 13 College Football Playoff national title game, Scott conducted most of his USF staff interviews remotely, and held his first two coaches meetings via Zoom.

Today, he says that orientation with video conferencing helped him get a leg up on the litany of Zoom calls the Bulls would be forced to conduct when USF’s campus shut down in mid-March.

When life hurled more figurative lemons his way, Scott kept the lemonade flowing.

When three USF non-conference contests — including a hyped trip to Texas — were canceled due to COVID-19, Scott and Kelly briskly bargained a two-for-one deal with Notre Dame. The Bulls travel to South Bend next weekend.

“He accepts situations, finds a positive in it, and works to make the most of it,” Kelly said. “No better proof of that than to have a new head coach that gets one day of spring practice, encounters (COVID-19), and then still finds I think effective ways to recruit in the new computer era.”

When Scott wasn’t improvising, he was empathizing.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody, as unrest over racial inequality was percolating nationally, Scott got a call from Bulls senior cornerback KJ Sails. The East Bay High alumnus and father of a toddler wanted to stage a unity walk, a peaceful display of solidarity among the USF community in the ongoing quest for social justice.

Related: 'This is the generation to make change,' says USF Bulls cornerback KJ Sails

“I remember (the call) like it was yesterday,” Sails said. “He said, ‘I’m behind you 100 percent.’ It was no hesitation. He told me he was behind me, and that spoke volumes to me and my family.”

Days later, Scott walked alongside Sails, leading hundreds of Bulls coaches, student-athletes, staffers and supporters on a mostly silent, rainy procession from downtown Tampa to Sails' boyhood church on Ybor City’s western fringe.

KJ Sails and USF football coach Jeff Scott during a unity walk in downtown Tampa on June 6.
KJ Sails and USF football coach Jeff Scott during a unity walk in downtown Tampa on June 6. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Special to the Times ]

“When he tells us he’s gonna do something for us, he gets it done,” senior receiver DeVontres Dukes said. “I have nothing but respect for him, because everything that he said he’s gonna do, he’s done it.”

As summer segues to autumn, the tempest that is 2020 has subsided only mildly. A half-dozen Bulls players opted out for the season due to COVID-19 concerns, and Scott can’t know for sure which players on his roster — who are tested three times a week — will be available from one week to the next.

When social unrest intensified after Jacob Blake’s shooting last month at the hands of Wisconsin police officers, Scott called off a practice and let his players vent their emotions.

“There’s just been a lot of things thrown at them,” Scott said.

Hence the reason he spent a recent morning team meeting showing his players a video of Chadwick Boseman’s 2018 commencement address at Howard University, the actor’s alma mater. At the time, Boseman already was battling the colon cancer that would take his life on Aug. 28 at age 43.

His audience had no clue. Dude never blinked.

“His most challenging time of his life — he’s literally fighting for his life — were the most successful and happiest years of his life,” Scott said.

“And in reality, that is life. And I think sometimes as young people and even adults, we have this false idea that ‘I’m gonna survive all this adversity and challenges, and then I’m gonna get there and it’s just gonna be smooth sailing.’ But that’s not life.”

“You’d better find joy in the adversity.”

Related: Getting to know The Citadel, which faces USF on Saturday

USF vs. The Citadel

Raymond James Stadium, 7 p.m.

TV/radio: ESPNU; 1250-AM


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