Fennelly: Lee Roy Selmon was one of the great human beings to grace Tampa Bay

Blake High School students Monique Lewis, Kiara Baker, Carlaine Charles and Jasmine Echevarria-Sola speak with Lee roy Selmon before a 2010 game against Western Kentucky at Raymond James Stadium. [Times files]
Blake High School students Monique Lewis, Kiara Baker, Carlaine Charles and Jasmine Echevarria-Sola speak with Lee roy Selmon before a 2010 game against Western Kentucky at Raymond James Stadium. [Times files]
Published Aug. 31, 2017

USF will begin its home schedule Saturday against Stony Brook. This marks the 21st season of football for the Bulls, but the program opened in 1997 with a 80-3 victory in Tampa over Kentucky Wesleyan.

Paul Griffin, who was USF athletic director at the time and who helped lead the drive for football at the school, never gets tired of telling (and I never get tired of writing) the Lee Roy Selmon story from that inaugural USF game. Selmon, the Bucs Hall of Famer, was USF assistant athletic director.

"We're standing there just before the game and Lee Roy says we have a problem," Griffin said. "What problem? We've got 50,000 people in the stands and no rain. Lee Roy tells me we don't have a kicking tee. This is a problem? Borrow one from (Wesleyan). Or have a guy kneel down and hold it. Lee Roy smiled. Pretty soon, a motorcycle cop is riding to a store to get a tee. Lee Roy wanted it just right that night."

We'd do well to remember the contributions by so many people that went into the creation of the USF program — boosters, presidents, athletic department officials as well as Jim Leavitt, the first head football coach in USF history.

And there was Lee Roy Selmon.

I never miss a chance to talk about one of the great human beings to grace Tampa Bay or anywhere else.

That was Lee Roy.

Monday will mark six years since Selmon, 56, died after a stroke. His loss is still felt. And not just when I think about him as I drive on his expressway or walk into the USF athletics building named for him.

It was Griffin, as USF began to build toward a program in the early 1990s, who hired Selmon out of his banking career with one thing in mind. So many people helped deliver USF football, including former USF presidents Frank Borkowski and Betty Castor and boosters like Ed Rood, Frank Morsani and Chris Sullivan. But Lee Roy mattered.

"Usually the identity of your program is coaches, your players, key former players," Griffin said. "But we didn't have anything at that point. I hired Lee Roy Selmon to become the face and image of South Florida football. We wanted someone who was everything that was good about college football, everything good when it came to everything, to represent South Florida football."

It's not that USF football wouldn't have happened without Selmon.

"The train was on the track," Griffins said. "But Lee Roy gave it legitimacy."

He added, "Lee Roy not only created a positive impression and image, but he mobilized a tremendous amount of support from people, leaders. And economic support. He brought together people with no connection to South Florida. Like the owners of Outback Steakhouse, (Chris) Sullivan and (Bob) Basham. They said if Lee Roy was in, we're in. That was the kind of thing Lee Roy did.

"You wanted people to think about Lee Roy. Integrity. Excellence. Although, as I grew to learn, he was not unique. He invited me when he was inducted into the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame. I met his family. They were all like that, all the Selmons. They're all amazing."

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I never get tired of thinking about Lee Roy, who he was, what he remains.

"He didn't have a mean bone in his body," Griffin said. "He was just the nicest, gentlest guy."

I'm thinking about Doug Williams, the great Bucs quarterback, talking about Lee Roy. Williams remembered the gentle giant who also happened to be one of the greatest defensive linemen in college and pro football history.

"I remember we were playing in a game and they were killing me out there, hitting me," Williams said. "And Lee Roy had a shot on the quarterback and he just pushed the guy down. I told him, 'Lee Roy, what the hell are you doing? They're killing me. Cut him in half.' He said, 'Oh, I didn't want to hurt the guy.' He smiled. What are you going to do when Lee Roy smiles?"

I'm thinking about Lee Roy's memorial service in Tampa Bay, held at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. His older brother, Dewey, eulogized him. He took us back to a sharecropping family in Eufaula, Okla., squeezed into a farm house with neither plumbing nor air conditioning — nor complaints.

"Lee Roy loved everything about our farm," Dewey said that day of the youngest of Lucious Sr. and Jessie's nine children. "He loved the animals. He loved the horses, the cows, the pigs and the geese. And he loved the chickens. He loved to feed the chickens. He'd give them a lot of food so they'd grow big and grow fast. The chickens didn't know it, but Lee Roy loved to eat chicken, too. Every weekend, there might be a chicken missing. Lee Roy looked so happy."

Laughter filled the church.

I'm thinking about September 2002. USF was playing at Oklahoma — Lee Roy's Oklahoma. Selmon, the greatest Sooner of them all, was by then USF athletic director. He looked at the field from the press box as USF and his alma mater warmed up. "I'm very proud," he said. Again, that smile.

USF plays its home opener Saturday.

I was just thinking about Lee Roy.

It makes me sad sometimes.

But I end up smiling.

That was Lee Roy.

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