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Having built a home at USF, Jose Fernandez not pulling up stakes

Though other opportunities have beckoned, the winner of nearly 400 women’s basketball games has stayed put.
USF women's coach Jose Fernandez has won 391 games and has led the program to seven NCAA Tournaments in his 21 seasons.
USF women's coach Jose Fernandez has won 391 games and has led the program to seven NCAA Tournaments in his 21 seasons. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 17
Updated Mar. 17

His salad days still aren’t far removed from the roughage.

Jose Fernandez has another USF women’s team perched prominently on an NCAA Tournament bracket, but he still remembers a prior administration nudging his career toward the bubble. He beams at a burgeoning season-ticket base, but recalls being banished to the “Corral” (site of USF volleyball games) or the school’s rec center for some home contests.

“We didn’t have season-ticket holders, courtside seats,” said Fernandez, hired at the dawn of the 2000-01 season, when the program was mired in turmoil. “There wasn’t a parking package, there weren’t games on TV, radio. It was a mess.”

Through persistence, sweat equity, and a radical recruiting philosophy, Fernandez erased the blemish, supplanting it with a sheen. By his fourth season, the Bulls were in the women’s NIT. By his sixth, they were in the NCAAs.

Related: USF's Kristyna Brabencova balances MS diagnosis, basketball career

Yet twice during his tenure, his contract ran out before being renewed. And for the previous 15 years, USF existed in the same conference as Connecticut, rendering the opportunity for league championships virtually nonexistent.

And the next nod of respect the Bulls receive from a tournament selection committee will be the first.

“I think we had a great run going,” former Bulls assistant Jeff Osterman said. “But when you’re playing with a UConn ... or an Alabama in football, there are some asterisks.”

So why stay the course? Why tread in a sea of asterisks instead of jumping into a stream with a more favorable current? Fernandez, 49, acknowledges he has had many opportunities to move on since establishing a steady pulse in USF’s program, but for myriad reasons has remained committed to the school that took a chance on him four days shy of his 29th birthday.

“This has been home,” said Fernandez, whose 19th-ranked team (18-3) begins NCAA Tournament play Sunday night against Washington State (9:30 p.m., ESPN2). “A lot of people look at other places and other jobs, but I’ve got a really, really good job, and I’m at a really special place.”

Building his brand

USF coach Jose Fernandez celebrates after the Bulls topped UCF in the finals of last week's American Athletic Conference tournament in Fort Worth, Texas.
USF coach Jose Fernandez celebrates after the Bulls topped UCF in the finals of last week's American Athletic Conference tournament in Fort Worth, Texas. [ TONY GUTIERREZ ]

A Miami native and married father of his own starting five (a quintet of girls), Fernandez enters the NCAA tourney with 391 career victories. Aside from softball icon Ken Eriksen, he is widely considered the most successful coach — any sport — in school history.

Considering his odyssey’s origin, few could have predicted such a vertical career trajectory.

The Bulls’ brand-new recruiting coordinator, Fernandez was promoted to acting coach at age 28 in the fall of 2000 when Jerry Ann Winters was suspended (and later dismissed) amid racial discrimination allegations. He was hired permanently on Nov. 14.

Amid a flurry of federal discrimination lawsuits leveled against Winters and the school, USF won four games in Fernandez’s inaugural year, often playing home games before only a few hundred fans.

But by Year Two, the Bulls won 14. Two years after that, they won 14 again, reaching a postseason tournament — the Women’s NIT — for the first time. Another WNIT berth arrived the following season, which included USF’s first win against Florida in 18 years.

At that point, the Fernandez coaching chops were in full bloom. A zealous follower of the NBA, Fernandez came to excel at what Osterman calls “special situations,” such as baseline and sideline out-of-bounds plays, or setups for a last shot.

“Oh my goodness, he’s incredible at it,” said Florida International coach Jesyka Burks-Wiley, who spent three seasons (2017-20) on Fernandez’s staff at USF. “You talk about envy, man. Three seconds, down two, need this — he’ll pull something out and I’m like, ‘Has he been sitting on that?’ He’s incredibly good at that. I learned a ton from him with that.”

But just as the Bulls program was turning the corner, it slammed into a concrete barrier. In 2005, USF moved to the Big East, home to a nice little New England program called UConn.

A revolutionary recruiting plan

Coach Geno Auriemma, left, and UConn were a nemesis of Jose Fernandez and USF when the teams shared a conference.
Coach Geno Auriemma, left, and UConn were a nemesis of Jose Fernandez and USF when the teams shared a conference. [ MIKE CARLSON | Associated Press (2020) ]

Over the next 15 years, the Bulls faced the Huskies 30 times, losing all 30 by an average margin of 29.7 points. Three times, USF finished second to UConn — which joined the Bulls in the American Athletic Conference when the old Big East dissolved — in the league’s regular-season standings.

In four consecutive years (2015-18), the Huskies topped the Bulls in the AAC tournament final. During that time, Fernandez adopted a radical recruiting philosophy, annually combing Europe for top-tier international talent to combat the daunting domestic rosters of UConn, Tennessee and Notre Dame.

“I think he is the reason why this program is so successful, and he is one of the first coaches recruiting overseas,” said former Bulls point guard Laia Flores Costa, now playing professionally in her native Spain.

“Now it is more usual to see teams recruiting overseas, but he was one of the first ones doing it and results show that the mix of American-foreign players works very well.”

The approach further elevated USF, which posted six consecutive 20-win seasons (2012-18) and reached five NCAA Tournaments in that span. But the Bulls still had no league trophy to brandish. Meantime, Fernandez received overtures from other schools, ones that didn’t have to navigate the nation’s resident women’s juggernaut two and three times a year.

He stayed put.

“There were benefits of having UConn in the conference, too,” Osterman said. “I mean, it was a give-and-take. Even though it was a goal every year, you had to give up realistically (the chance) to win the conference or win the conference tournament. But UConn also did help a lot with credibility, which in turn helped in recruiting.”

Better recruits led to greater consistency, which led to more booster support. In the fall of 2011, the Bulls men’s and women’s teams moved into the Muma Center, a 51,000-square-foot, two-story basketball facility financed in part by a sizable donation from prominent USF boosters Pam and Les Muma.

The following season, USF won its first NCAA Tournament game. Just prior to the pandemic, the women’s program had a season-ticket base of approximately 1,200 — roughly five times greater than the Bulls’ average home attendance when Fernandez took over the program.

“I think also what most people don’t maybe understand on the outside is, success is really hard to replicate. I think that’s why you have so many coaches go from crushing it at one school, and then go to the next school and it just kind of doesn’t have that same pop,” said Burks-Wiley, recently named Conference USA coach of the year.

“I think (Fernandez) is one of the smart ones that kind of realized that, I built this from scratch and I can keep it rolling, so why would I want to kind of turn the keys over to someone else when you could continue the legacy that he’s already built.”

Pride in the program

Despite winning The American Athletic Conference title, the Bulls are seeded eighth for the NCAA Tournament.
Despite winning The American Athletic Conference title, the Bulls are seeded eighth for the NCAA Tournament. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Frustration still periodically seeps in through the infrastructure Fernandez has spent more than two decades building.

In the wake of the program’s first conference regular season and tournament titles, the Bulls — 25th in the NCAA’s final NET rankings — were seeded eighth in the Mercado Region of the NCAA Tournament when pairings were announced Monday. Eighth.

“I don’t know what we could’ve done differently,” their coach said.

Another slap in the face. But if history holds serve, Fernandez won’t turn his attention toward a Power Five pasture.

He’ll just turn the other cheek.

“A lot had to do with that I was able to build this place from scratch,” said Fernandez, who has two years remaining on his current contract (a six-year, $2.9 million deal) but is almost certain to get an extension this offseason.

“Yeah, don’t get me wrong, there have been a lot of opportunities that have come. No. 1, I’ve got a great practice facility with a really good arena. We’re supported like a football-five program, and I think we’ve built the program where ... we really, really get good support from season-ticket holders and donors.

“It’s just worked out.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.