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What USF football can learn from this round of AAC expansion

Four of the six additions have opened new football stadiums in the last decade. That matters, if the Bulls are going to make the Power Five jump.
An on-campus stadium would help USF's push to join a Power Five league. We saw that with this round of conference realignment.
An on-campus stadium would help USF's push to join a Power Five league. We saw that with this round of conference realignment. [ Courtesy of USF ]
Published Oct. 22

As American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco explained his league’s six additions Thursday, he kept repeating one word USF fans should remember for the next round of conference realignment.

“It all comes down in the end,” Aresco said, “to schools that you think will invest.”

Related: What USF fans should know about AAC’s six new members

USF’s new AAC colleagues invested heavily, allowing them to move from Conference USA and join a premier Group of Five league. If the Bulls eventually want to leave the newcomers behind by going to the Big 12 or some other Power Five conference, they will have to do the same.

New facilities aren’t the only ways to invest — coaching salaries and staff sizes matter, too — but they’re the most visible. It’s telling that four of the six additions have built new football stadiums in the last decade.

Florida Atlantic and North Texas unveiled their 30,000-seat stadiums in 2011. Charlotte’s opened with the program in 2013, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham played its first game at the $200 million Protective Stadium earlier this month. All are either on campus or within three miles of it.

Birmingham's Protective Stadium opened earlier this year. It's the new home to Blazers football.
Birmingham's Protective Stadium opened earlier this year. It's the new home to Blazers football. [ Business Wire ]

If North Texas still played at the antiquated Fouts Field instead of the $78 million Apogee Stadium, athletic director Wren Baker doesn’t think the Mean Green could have jumped from the Sun Belt to Conference USA, much less to the AAC.

“All the success we’re having probably started with building that stadium …” Baker said. “I think now when people think of North Texas, they think of some of the best collection of facilities in the Group of Five. I think that started with the vision of that stadium and the thought that we should aspire to be the best when we build something.”

Related: Will USF football be another UCF or UConn?

Once the stadium question stopped lingering over its heads, North Texas could focus on other upgrades. A new facility for the four-time national champion men’s golf team. New venues in soccer and track. A $16 million indoor practice facility that opened two years ago.

Would North Texas have been attractive to the AAC even without those new facilities? Maybe. The Mean Green, like USF, have a large enrollment and sit in a growing metro area loaded with recruits. The potential is high.

But potential on its own isn’t enough.

“It has to be coupled with that commitment,” Aresco said. “If you don’t really feel the commitment’s there, then I doubt the potential’s there, either.”

North Texas showed enough commitment through what Aresco called “enormous investments” to earn its promotion to the AAC. And that leads to the lesson for USF.

USF formally broke ground on its long-awaited indoor practice facility last month.
USF formally broke ground on its long-awaited indoor practice facility last month. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Though the top-level moves in this round of conference realignment are over, the expectation in the industry is that another wave will come in a few years. USF must prepare now. Aside from showing drastic improvement in football and men’s basketball, the most important thing the Bulls can do is to build.

Breaking ground on the indoor practice facility last month was big. The school’s vision for an on-campus football stadium is bigger. Building it could be transformative.

Related: USF ‘going to’ build on-campus football stadium, board of trustees chair says

“To me, that is the mindset of moving forward and preparing to be in a better position,” USF coach Jeff Scott said.

“There’s a saying I’ve heard before: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time to plant a tree is now.”

The seeds planted years ago by North Texas and the five others blossomed this week, allowing them to join USF in a strong mid-major conference. If the Bulls are going to leave them eventually for the Big 12 or somewhere else, now’s the time to invest in the seeds that will help them grow out.

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