Jones: Charlie Strong, football program need a cash commitment from USF

USF coach Charlie Strong is still in the honeymoon phase with the Bulls, columnist Tom Jones writes. But eventually he'll want to see some investment from the school into the football program. (Octavio Jones, Times)
USF coach Charlie Strong is still in the honeymoon phase with the Bulls, columnist Tom Jones writes. But eventually he'll want to see some investment from the school into the football program. (Octavio Jones, Times)
Published Aug. 25, 2017

TAMPA — The most anticipated season in the history of USF football is finally here.

The Bulls are ranked 19th in the country. They have a quarterback who is getting Heisman hype. There are predictions of an undefeated season and a New Year's Day bowl invitation.

"It's exciting because we have a chance to do some things," new coach Charlie Strong said.

Yes, it's the best time ever to be a Bull.

But is it actually good to be a Bull?

As USF embarks on what could be the greatest season in the program's 20-year history, you can't help but wonder if the program is all that it can be.

Will it ever be all that it can be?

RELATED: At his core, Charlie Strong remains unchanged

In the world of college football — where ritzy facilities with the shiniest bells and newest whistles are needed to attract big-time recruits — USF is a second-class citizen.

What USF has been able to accomplish with such meager furnishings is stunning and a testament to the work put in by original coach Jim Leavitt, former coach Willie Taggart and now Strong.

But if USF ever hopes to truly compete with the big guys like Florida and FSU and keep pace with even the likes of UCF and Florida Atlantic, it will need a serious upgrade of, well, everything.

We're talking practice facilities, weight rooms, training rooms, meeting rooms, the whole shebang.

Because right now, it just isn't good enough. And if nothing changes, get ready for a revolving door on the head coach's office as one blue-chip recruit after another moves on down the road.

RELATED: USF primer: Quick hits leading up to opener at San Jose State

Look at last season. USF had its best season ever. It won a program-record 11 games.

And what was the reward for all that success? Its head coach, who is from here, left for a better job 3,000 miles away. And USF went to something called the Birmingham Bowl (yippee).

Now maybe that's all USF will ever be: a nice little program that wins enough games to go to second-tier bowls and is a stepping-stone job for coaches. Actually, there's nothing wrong with being that kind of program. Perhaps USF will be content to be just like Arkansas State and Boise State.

USF, however, seems to have bigger aspirations.

RELATED: Charlie Strong: USF needs indoor facility, outdoor fan support

Then again, it's one thing to talk about being great. It's another to do what it takes to be great, and that starts with spending money to have the facilities to compete with college football royalty.

That means having a school president who cares even half as much about athletics as academics. That means having an athletic director who knows which doors to knock on. And it means alumni who will open those doors and wallets when the AD comes a'knocking.

This program feels like a sleeping giant, but now the emphasis is on "sleeping."

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While it's fun to talk about how successful this upcoming season might be, it does feel like a shooting star — something brilliant, but fleeting. And already there's pressure on the 2017 team because even one loss will ruin any wild dream USF might have about a spectacular conclusion.

Here's the bottom line: USF wants to be great now and from now on. But it never will be if certain things aren't changed.

It wants to be in a Power 5 conference. It wants to go after any recruit in the country and not have the door slammed in its face. It wants to have ESPN's College GameDay roll into town. It wants to be able to compete for a national championship.

None of those things will happen with substandard facilities.

Ask yourself this: if USF wins 10 games this season and Strong has a chance to go to North Carolina or Ole Miss or Northwestern, do you honestly think he would stay? If you're some hotshot quarterback who wants to play in games that Kirk Herbstreit announces, are you going to pick USF?

Ask Strong about USF and he says, "It's always exciting when you have a chance to watch a program grow and be a part of it."

When asked how his eight months on the job have been, he said, "It has been everything I thought it would be."

He just got here. He's excited about the season. He's nothing but X's and O's right now. He's not about to start criticizing anything.

So I will.

And I'm not here to pick on USF or rain on anyone's parade. There's absolutely no reason USF can't be a college football heavyweight. There's no reason why USF can't be taken as seriously as, say, Louisville, which just happens where Strong used to coach. There's no reason why USF can't be treated with respect.

But it starts with USF respecting itself and giving Strong and this football program all the necessities it needs to complete.

Otherwise, enjoy this team and enjoy Strong. USF might never have it so good again.