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‘Failure’s not an option’ for USF Bulls’ on-campus football stadium

Board of trustees chairperson Will Weatherford tried to speak the stadium into existence a year ago today.
USF board of trustees chair Will Weatherford has been the driving force behind the Bulls' renewed push for an on-campus stadium.
USF board of trustees chair Will Weatherford has been the driving force behind the Bulls' renewed push for an on-campus stadium. [ Provided ]
Published Sep. 8|Updated Sep. 8

ST. PETERSBURG — A year ago today, Will Weatherford used the groundbreaking ceremony for USF’s indoor practice facility to set the stage for another: the Bulls’ on-campus football stadium.

“I’m here to tell you, we’re going to do it,” the chairperson of USF’s board of trustees proclaimed.

If you were — or remain — skeptical about a stadium, that’s fair. USF has been discussing the idea for its entire existence, and a handful of proposals have stalled over the decades.

So why will this initiative be the one that finally moves the Bulls from Raymond James Stadium to campus?

“Because failure’s not an option here,” Weatherford said Tuesday.

Related: What will USF Bulls gain from an on-campus football stadium?

And it’s not an option, because Weatherford won’t let it be.

This 2022 rendering by OSPORTS shows what USF's athletics district might look like with the addition of an on-campus stadium.
This 2022 rendering by OSPORTS shows what USF's athletics district might look like with the addition of an on-campus stadium. [ Courtesy of USF ]

A former football player at Land O’ Lakes High and Jacksonville University, Weatherford has always seen the value in playing on campus. When Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him to USF’s board in January 2021, Weatherford decided to push for a stadium if he ever became chairperson. He was elected to that role five months later and started calling his predecessors to understand the issue.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something,” Weatherford said in a sit-down interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “It turned out, I wasn’t.”

The previous failures came down to conviction and cost.

Weatherford took care of the first part quickly. He made the stadium his No. 2 goal, behind student success and achievement.

USF’s other powerbrokers got on board. In a self-evaluation presented Tuesday, trustees cited “breaking ground on the stadium” as something they aim to accomplish in the next two years.

The board listed stadium progress as one of Rhea Law’s objectives when she was interim president. On Tuesday, it approved “planning for an on-campus stadium” and assessing its feasibility as some of Law’s 2022-23 presidential goals.

USF president Rhea Law (center), board of trustees chair Will Weatherford (right) and vice chair Mike Griffin (left) are aligned with the push for an on-campus stadium.
USF president Rhea Law (center), board of trustees chair Will Weatherford (right) and vice chair Mike Griffin (left) are aligned with the push for an on-campus stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“Rhea knows this is a big part of her job, to see this project through,” Weatherford said.

That understanding didn’t exist in previous administrations. USF’s first president, John S. Allen, always opposed a stadium. Another former president, Betty Castor, once said she was open to the idea if “someone wanted to give it to USF.” Explorations under Judy Genshaft fizzled, and Law’s predecessor, Steve Currall, called it a “vision,” not a plan.

Related: A brief history of USF Bulls’ decades-long football stadium saga

Now the Bulls have a plan. They know where they’ll build it (north of the practice fields) and how many people it will seat (35,000). The conviction is there.

What about the cost?

USF has not released a budget or plan to pay for it. The next update — a finalized contract with the design/build team of Barton Malow and Populous in the next few weeks — will include expenses for design but not construction.

It will be expensive, Weatherford said. But if they wait another decade?

“It’ll get more expensive,” Weatherford said.

Ongoing financial discussions will become bigger over the next six months, soon after the Barton Malow/Populous deal is approved. USF is more open to the idea of borrowing money than it has been. Weatherford said the stadium revenue streams, like concessions, will help service debt. That model has worked at Colorado State, which opened its $220 million Canvas Stadium in 2017.

“We’re going to be counting on donors and supporters and season ticket holders and suite buyers and all those things,” Weatherford said. “But we’re also going to get really creative and look for unique solutions.”

Weatherford’s push comes during one of the most transformative times in the history of college sports. The College Football Playoff will expand from four teams to 12 by 2026. Conference realignment remains unsettled. Weatherford said those forces created “an added incentive” to work toward a ‘26 opening date, but they weren’t the driving factor.

They do, however, lead to a legitimate concern in the fan base: What if it’s too late? What if the Bulls are left out of super conferences and spend nine figures on a stadium to host uninspiring teams like Rice or Charlotte?

“Either we’re going to be in the game, or we’re not going to be in the game,” Weatherford said. “We choose to be in the game. Therefore, we have to be able to compete. In order to compete, you have to be willing to spend the resources necessary. It’s speaking it into existence.”

Weatherford did that a year ago today when he called the stadium “an idea whose time has come.”

That time is closer now than ever. The Bulls accomplished more in the last 12 months than they did in the previous six decades.

No, the Bulls do not yet have all the answers. But the conviction is there to find them and the cash needed to make this long-awaited vision a reality. Because the other option — failure — isn’t something Weatherford is willing to consider.

“We’re not backing out ...” he said. “We have to figure it out. We will figure it out.”

• • •

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