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Amid Big 12 speculation, USF sees opportunity and reality

These days, USF athletic director Mark Harlan can't find one spot on the globe where speculation about a leap to the Big 12 won't accompany him. [Times files]
These days, USF athletic director Mark Harlan can't find one spot on the globe where speculation about a leap to the Big 12 won't accompany him. [Times files]
Published Dec. 10, 2014

TAMPA

First-year Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan found himself in New York for Monday's regularly scheduled American Athletic Conference meetings, but he could've flown to New Delhi, New Guinea, even New Zealand. Wouldn't have mattered.

These days, Harlan can't find one spot on the globe where speculation about a leap to the Big 12 won't accompany him.

The suppositions and surmising began intensifying around lunchtime Sunday, when Big 12 co-champs Baylor and TCU were denied entrance into the Division I-A four-team football playoff. Presumably, the teams were hindered because their league — with only 10 teams — has no conference title game.

Current NCAA rules require conferences to have at least 12 members to stage a football championship contest. The math is effortless.

The hypotheses ever since have been ceaseless.

UCF and USF to Big 12. Package deal. Problem solved.

Stoking the dialogue among Bulls constituents was the fact that Big 12 ADs also met Monday in New York. Coincidence? Yes. Conjecture? You betcha.

Harlan didn't immediately respond to a text message Tuesday, and a USF spokesman said he's not likely to comment on the resuscitated hubbub beyond what he frequently has said in the past: The Bulls first must focus on becoming a championship program in their own conference.

Translation: How attractive can a 4-8 football team with one actual home crowd of more than 25,000 last season be to a Power Five league? How would it perceive a program that couldn't draw an audience of even 6,500 last winter for a men's basketball game against the reigning national champ (Louisville)?

Geography, and its accompanying costs and logistical concerns, also can't be ignored. If suddenly propelled into the Big 12, the Bulls' closest road trip would be to Morgantown, W.Va., 950 miles one-way. League exit fees and existing TV contracts also represent significant obstacles.

Would other factors trump such concerns? Perhaps. Both USF and UCF reside in coveted TV markets (13th and 18th nationally, per Nielsen), are nestled amid fertile football recruiting soil, and possess highly attractive facilities. Branching out to Florida would allow the Big 12 to stretch its brand.

A bigger stretch is believing it will happen overnight. Big 12 officials already have met with administrators at Cincinnati, according to the Sporting News. Which isn't to say informal discussions haven't occurred with other schools including USF.

The Bulls possess too many attributes not to be considered for a Power Five promotion, and their fan base has proven it will support a winning football team. At this point, a moderate degree of optimism is reasonable; it could happen in the next few years.

Just not the next few months.

A BULL FOR WHICH LIFE? On the same weekend squirrels were infiltrating a local substation and knocking out electricity on USF's campus, the Bulls volleyball team watched its front-line voltage diminish greatly as well.

On Monday, the school confirmed 5-foot-11 junior Erin Fairs, the 2013 AAC player of the year and a first-team pick this past season, has been granted a release and will transfer. It is presumed Fairs, a Houston native, will move closer to home for her final college season. She is one of eight Bulls to total 1,000 career digs and kills.

"We want to thank Erin for her contributions to the program over the last three seasons," coach Courtney Draper said in a statement. "She's a talented young woman who helped impact this program in a positive way. We wish her nothing but success as she moves back toward home and into the next stage of her life."

By the way, Fairs' Twitter handle: @BullsForLife_

ODDS AND ENDS: Former USF offensive coordinator Paul Wulff, one of three assistants recently dismissed by coach Willie Taggart, declined comment when reached Monday evening. Counting the end of the Skip Holtz era, the Bulls will have their fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons in 2015. ... Bulls junior PG Anthony Collins leads the AAC in assists (6.5 per game) and assist-turnover ratio (2.5). The Bulls, off for exams this week, host Georgia Southern on Monday night.

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