TAMPA — As the USF football coaching search unfolds over the coming weeks, every Bulls candidate will confront the same question.
How good is the USF job?
The answer being pitched this week at the Lee Roy Selmon Athletics Center: better than it was 35 months ago when the Bulls hired Jeff Scott.
“A lot of things that Jeff helped pave the way for will be a great benefit to whoever comes in here and takes the baton from here,” athletic director Michael Kelly said Tuesday.
The foundation Scott laid will be a crucial selling point as USF hunts for his successor. Because for all of USF’s inherent advantages — starting with its location in one of the nation’s top recruiting areas — its history is full of unrealized potential.
Sure, the Bulls still get traction from reaching No. 2 in the nation in 2007, and they went 21-4 in 2016-17 under Willie Taggart/Charlie Strong.
But USF has also never won a conference title or played for one. Since 2000, only four other Group of Five programs have played every year without at least appearing in a conference championship: Eastern Michigan, UNLV, New Mexico and Tulane (which might get there this year).
USF has also fired three of its last four coaches during or after their third season. Every program can make a bad hire or two. But three out of four? That suggests deeper issues. Perhaps that’s what Scott meant last month when he pointed out how USF has never had “sustainable success” and that the Bulls aren’t “a program that you can just come in two years and change a few things and all of a sudden, you’re winning 11 games.”
That, obviously, was true with Scott. But the program Scott inherited is not the same one his successor will inherit. It’s better.
Facilities are the most obvious example. The Bulls moved into a renovated locker room last year, and the $22 million indoor practice facility opened for limited use this week (with a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony expected in January).
The push for a proposed on-campus stadium continues, with board of trustees chair Will Weatherford declaring its failure is not an option. The new coach will be able to capitalize and utilize them all.
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He’ll also be in position to benefit from the less obvious transformations Scott helped create. Kelly credited him for prioritizing the player experience. USF upgraded its nutrition, provided different housing arrangements, included a social lounge in the locker room and boosted the cost of attendance stipend.
Both sets of upgrades are possible because USF is showing a renewed commitment to the program. That’s only possible because of institutional alignment. After two athletic director changes and two presidential searches since 2014, USF looks steady with Kelly and Rhea Law.
“The vision is there,” Kelly said. “The commitment is there.”
Some of the other circumstances are, too. The local recruiting footprint remains strong. The transfer portal provides a second chance to land any talented players USF fails to sign out of high school.
Though the Bulls would love to be heading to the Big 12 with UCF, they’ll have one of the largest athletic budgets in the new-look American Athletic Conference. There’s no reason USF should not be able to compete for AAC titles.
Especially since Scott helped the Bulls confront some of the behind-the-scenes issues that had been holding them back.
“There are a lot of obstacles in place that kind of made part of that happen,” Kelly said. “I also believe we put a lot of things in place with Jeff that has made the future success that I envision — that I believe in — possible.”
Kelly believes, with good reason, that USF finally has the tools in place to, finally, break through. The only thing missing? The right coach.
The AAC announced Wednesday that USF will play Florida Atlantic annually when the Owls join next year. Though dates are not yet set, the conference did announce USF’s 2023 opponents.
Home: Rice, Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, Temple
Away: Memphis, Navy, University of Texas at San Antonio, University of Alabama at Birmingham
The non-conference schedule features home games against Alabama and Florida A&M and trips to Western Kentucky and UConn.
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