TAMPA — When USF board of trustees chairperson Will Weatherford said the Bulls risked being left behind if they don’t build a new football stadium, he wasn’t bluffing.
USF has already been left behind in one crucial realm: conference realignment.
Weatherford didn’t mention Cincinnati, Houston or rival UCF by name during Tuesday’s board meeting. But he did reference “other institutions that made investments in their athletic infrastructure that have had the opportunity to move onto other conferences …” The Bearcats, Cougars and Knights will leave USF’s conference, the AAC, to join a more prestigious and lucrative Power Five league, the Big 12, on July 1.
Which leads to the obvious, $340 million question: How much will Tuesday’s approval of a 35,000-seat on-campus stadium help the Bulls in the next round of conference realignment?
“Just the momentum we have as a university has got to be attractive to anybody,” athletic director Michael Kelly said.
Since January, USF has:
• Formally opened its $22 million indoor practice facility. In addition to shielding players from storms and blistering heat, it helped the Bulls host 4,000 high school campers in the past week.
• Received an invitation to the Association of American Universities (AAU), an elite group of 71 premier research institutions. Conference membership decisions are decided by presidents, not athletic directors, so academic prestige resonates. AAU membership has effectively been seen as a prerequisite for consideration by the Big Ten.
• Approved the initial budget to open a stadium north of the football practice facilities for the 2026 season. The building will also house operations centers for football and women’s lacrosse.
“Obviously we want to be a dominant leader in the American (Athletic Conference), and we do that in some areas and we haven’t done it in others,” Kelly said. “This is going to help us do that, be more competitive, but to be attractive to anyone else that would be looking for partners.”
So, who might be looking?
The Big 12 is the most obvious option. It has been open about its desire to expand its national reach. Colorado, Arizona and UConn are potential targets, and there have been recent conflicting reports about the league’s interest in another AAC school, Memphis.
Two of the Big 12′s three newcomers from the AAC have relatively new on-campus stadiums: UCF opened what’s now called FBC Mortgage Stadium in 2007, and Houston began playing at TDECU Stadium seven years later. The other, Cincinnati, finished a $86 million expansion and renovation of Nippert Stadium in 2015.
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San Diego State hasn’t joined a power conference yet — it remains in the mid-major Mountain West — but is expected to earn an invitation to the Pac-12 or Big 12 soon, potentially by the end of the month. The $310 million stadium it opened last year is one of its key selling points.
“Those that have done (stadium projects) in the last 15 years or so have kind of shown the ability for success — most recently with San Diego State kind of being a relevant factor,” Kelly said. “Obviously, with us being an AAU institution and an even bigger market, it makes you even that much more attractive, in my opinion.”
Big 12 dignitaries did not specifically cite UCF’s stadium when they celebrated the Knights’ addition in September 2021. But then-commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the conference focused on “schools that we felt would move the needle for us in football first …” Though facilities don’t do that on their own, they help. And after years of inaction, USF is earning national attention for its infrastructure upgrades.
“What a roll we’re on right now …” Kelly said. “It’s a good time to run with the Bulls.”
All they need is a running mate.
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