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Can USF’s Amir Abdur-Rahim succeed where so many others have stumbled?

The Bulls’ new men’s basketball coach inherits a program with one winning season since 2012-13.
 
New USF men's basketball coach Amir Abdur-Rahim observes his team during its Nov. 2 exhibition against Edward Waters College at Yuengling Center.
New USF men's basketball coach Amir Abdur-Rahim observes his team during its Nov. 2 exhibition against Edward Waters College at Yuengling Center. [ CHRIS HENRY | Chris Henry | South Florida Athletics ]
Published Nov. 8, 2023|Updated Nov. 8, 2023

TAMPA — He stands in a Yuengling Center tunnel, gazing out at an arena mostly bereft of men’s basketball banners.

On this day, new USF coach Amir Abdur-Rahim’s practice has been open to boosters, but there’s only a smattering of them, which seems eerily fitting. Success of this 53-year-old program has been equally sparse. Abdur-Rahim’s four immediate predecessors all have been fired from this gig, exiting with losing records.

Hardly a flattering portrait. Yet beauty’s in the eye of the believer. If nothing else, Abdur-Rahim believes this program’s best brushstrokes are ahead of it.

“What’s a bleak history to some people looks like a canvas to paint a beautiful picture to other people. And that’s what I saw,” the 42-year-old married dad of three said. “It has to start somewhere.”

After orchestrating one of the most astounding turnarounds in NCAA hoops history at Kennesaw State (from a one-win season in 2020 to an NCAA Tournament berth three years later), Abdur-Rahim is attempting to perform a similar resuscitation at another college basketball outpost. USF hasn’t had a winning season in five years and hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament in more than a decade.

To help lift the Bulls from this perpetual funk, the school has tried seemingly every variety of coach, from those with proven resumes (Stan Heath) to those with poignant back stories (Orlando Antigua). Brian Gregory, whom Abur-Rahim replaced, went 24-14 five seasons ago and led USF to a postseason tourney but never posted another winning season.

So what sets Abdur-Rahim apart from those guys? Why should Bulls fans believe this Atlanta native with a unique past of his own (one of 13 kids in a blended family, and one of six brothers to play college hoops) can flourish where so many have faltered?

“I think he’s able to relate to the players and get them to perform at a high level,” said veteran coach Billy Kennedy, who coached Abdur-Rahim at Southeastern Louisiana and later employed him as an assistant at both Murray State and Texas A&M. “The thing he does best is communicating with the guys.”

Former Troy University standout Ben Fletcher, who played against Abdur-Rahim and is entering his fifth season as one of his assistants, cites two reasons.

“One, he’s really big on relationships,” Fletcher said. “Whether that be our players, our coaching staff, our administration, our community. He takes pride in relationships, real relationships.

“And then the second reason is, man, I think he’s one of the more stubborn guys I’ve ever been around. And not in a bad way. He’s going to push guys to be the best version of themselves every single day. There won’t be a day that he comes into this facility and a guy will get cheated. I’ve seen it now for four years, and he’s never taken a day off, I’m just telling you.”

The roster Abdur-Rahim will roll out for Thursday night’s season opener against South Carolina State (five Division I transfers, three holdovers from last season’s USF team) belies the philosophy he believes can transform his new program. The Bulls’ offseason coaching change led to the inevitable mass exodus of players, forcing Abdur-Rahim to tap into the NCAA transfer portal for replenishments.

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But going forward, he’ll hit the grassroots running.

New USF men's basketball coach Amir Abdur-Rahim addresses a USF crowd of several hundred at his introductory news conference in late March.
New USF men's basketball coach Amir Abdur-Rahim addresses a USF crowd of several hundred at his introductory news conference in late March. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

At Kennesaw, Abdur-Rahim succeeded by recruiting high school talent, retaining it and developing it, with only judicious use of the portal. Six of his top seven scorers at Kennesaw last season — when the Owls finished 26-9 — had spent at least three years in the program. Four of the top six scorers were recruited out of high school by Abdur-Rahim.

Three of them — senior guards Chris Youngblood, Brandon Stroud and Kasen Jennings — followed him to USF.

“The first year (at Kennesaw) we won one game, and that was with a lot of guys we had to hold over,” Fletcher recalled.

“So the next year, that first real class, those are the guys that really changed it. Although we only won five, we played in so many close games, so all that did was give those guys experiences that they couldn’t get any other place. So now, you go into Year 3 and that’s those guys’ second year in the program. Man, we won (13 games). You could see it changing, they started believing.”

While such an approach typically requires time and patience, the process can be expedited by resources and the occasional recruiting coup.

USF is among the four programs still in contention for five-star prospect Karter Knox, ESPN’s 16th-ranked player from the Class of 2024 and younger brother of Bulls redshirt sophomore Kobe Knox. Meantime, the Bulls’ NIL coffers are believed to be surprisingly solid, the result of a number of prominent boosters being hoops zealots.

“Everything we need, we have the capability of getting,” Abdur-Rahim said.

What they need more than anything is a sliver of success, a winning season or two that can reassure recruits of the program’s ability to establish and maintain an upward trajectory. USF hasn’t posted consecutive winning seasons since the Seth Greenberg era (2002-2003).

Is Abdur-Rahim the guy who can add brightness to that bleak portrait? Bulls legend Charlie Bradley, who recently spent time with Abdur-Rahim, believes so.

“Just being around and just feeling, it’s just a different vibe, a different culture,” said Bradley, who remains the program’s career scoring leader. “He’s got these guys being very respectful and believing; that’s the thing. You’ve still got to play the game, so we don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do think the program is heading in the right direction. I really do.”

Of course, similar plaudits have been attached to many of Abdur-Rahim’s predecessors.

Bulls fans can only hope this latest vibe is not only different, but darned transformational.

“Yeah, I do embrace (the challenge), but as I’ve said to people before, I’m not sure what those (previous) coaches, what their mindset was, but I’m in the business of developing men,” Abdur-Rahim said.

“Every day, that’s what it’s about for me. I know if I develop the men, the players will come. So I’m just going to keep attacking it that way and the rest of it will take care of itself.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

Amir Abdur-Rahim vs. history

Only two USF men’s basketball coaches who remained longer than one season (Lee Rose, Seth Greenberg) exited the program with winning records. Here are the records of the last four Bulls full-time coaches during their respective tenures at USF:

Robert McCullum (2003-2007): 40-76

Stan Heath (2007-2014): 97-130

Orlando Antigua (2014-2017): 17-48

Brian Gregory (2017-2023): 79-107

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