When USF revealed the two presidential candidates to be interviewed Friday, Kelan Farrell-Smith was not on the list. That’s not a surprise.
The out-of-work 39-year-old California resident has spent more time working at a now-defunct private investment fund and fronting a punk rock band that was once semi-famous on MySpace than he has in higher-education administration.
But board of trustees chair Will Weatherford says he wants USF to dream big. Farrell-Smith does. That’s obvious by the two-paragraph cover letter he sent with his application.
“I think that the key to USF’s long-term success is for them to join a “Power 5″ football conference …” Farrell-Smith wrote. “That would be my first, second, and only priority as President of USF …”
Farrell-Smith is an unlikely person to make that pitch. His only professional experience in football was his year as a varsity strength trainer for a high school team in California. His most recent jobs were as a consultant for a financial company that went belly-up during the pandemic, an employee in the admissions office at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University and the guitarist/lead vocalist for Carbon Based (The Punk Band), which is trying to rekindle the online following it built during MySpace’s heyday.
But Farrell-Smith is also a free-thinking former Congressional candidate with three master’s degrees. He’s worth hearing out.
Farrell-Smith believes USF’s long-term growth depends on increasing the application pool. More applicants create a better selectivity rate. A better selectivity rate means a higher academic profile, which helps attract research money and top professors, which lead to a better education.
The starting point for all that, he said, is marketing.
“That’s why you would want to focus on national football marketing and national football exposure,” Farrell-Smith said in a recent phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “That is the way to get the selectivity numbers to where you want them to be in terms of creating what USF calls preeminent institutions.”
USF earned that designation from the state in 2018, but other goals remain, like joining the prestigious Association of American Universities. Farrell-Smith sees big-time sports as the way to get there.
The schools that play regularly on high-profile national broadcasts get their message to large audiences of prospective students and parents. The marketing platform of the Power Five is stronger than the Group of Five. Farrell-Smith points to the success of former mid-major school Utah, which joined the Pac-12 a decade ago and reported a record enrollment this fall.
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“As far as recruiting (students) and getting big-time national exposure, you’ve really got to get into one of those Power Five conferences,” Farrell-Smith said.
But how? Farrell-Smith’s first idea is to talk with the State University System of Florida about increasing USF’s funding for football to get its budget more in line with the Gators or Seminoles.
The next step: hire a big-name coach who can win and get people excited, the way Jim Harbaugh did at Michigan.
“See if Tom Brady’s available,” Farrell-Smith said. “Urban Meyer just got fired from Jacksonville ...”
Forget about the feasibility for a moment and focus on the ambition. Dream big.
UCF did when it committed to building new football facilities. Cincinnati did when it spent $86 million renovating Nippert Stadium. Houston did when it poached coach Dana Holgorsen from a Power Five program (West Virginia). All three schools, not coincidentally, are soon leaving USF and the AAC to join the Big 12.
Though the benefits of changing conferences could be overstated, the athletic prestige is undeniable. It’s reasonable to expect some of it to carry over to academics and the student body as a whole.
“With the way online education is going, I think it’s really important to have those big-time sports programs to actually have some kind of culture at those institutions to begin with,” Farrell-Smith said. “When they don’t have those, it’s just a bunch of genius kids over in this corner and this corner doing their thing, and they end up really isolated from each other.”
That argument is similar to what the Bulls have said as they push for an on-campus stadium. Scott said it would energize a campus that can be “a little sleepy.”
Both (potentially connected) goals — a new stadium and a Power Five invite — are expensive, challenging and worthwhile. And both require the whatever-it-takes support of USF’s next president.
Barring a massive change, that will not be Farrell-Smith. That’s okay. He didn’t get a call back when he applied for the job three years ago, either. The other 20-some presidential jobs he has sought over the years turned him down, too.
But that hasn’t stopped Farrell-Smith from trying. It has not stopped him from doing something USF must do as it enters a pivotal moment in its athletic history.
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