USF-Florida State: Living with the reality of 'double-agent' fans

Published Sept. 24, 2016

TAMPA — They're expecting a big crowd today at Raymond James Stadium. USF meets Florida State.

Will there be more USF fans or FSU fans?

Rest assured: There will be double agents.

There will be those holding dual citizenship.

You know the type. Went to USF but roots for FSU. Didn't go to FSU but fell for the Seminoles long before Bulls began football. You know the type.

Mind you, I'm not blaming them. They come by their allegiances honestly. And it's not like they're stealing USF atomic secrets.

"I can't help it," said St. Petersburg attorney Debra Gell, a USF alumnus who will admit, under oath if need be, that she is a Seminoles fan.

One of Gell's law partners, Nick Fiorentino, had T-shirts made for Gell, with USF and FSU emblems on the front and the words "A Debra Divided." Fiorentino went to USF, too. He owns 10 Bulls season tickets. He will be there today with his family. So will the fun-loving Gell. In her defense, she attended USF long before the school began playing football in 1997.

Still, a USF graduate pulling for FSU.


"Nick is trying to turn me," Gell said with a laugh. "But there's too much history. I love them both, both schools, but I'm for FSU."

It's all part of the battle USF football faces every day, even as it is on the rise again. Same goes for UCF. It's a fact of life in the Land of the Big Three. You see it in other cities, too, including those that house other Big 12 expansion candidates. Think Cincinnati doesn't have Ohio State fans in its midst? Think Houston doesn't deal with Texas A&M and Texas spies?

USF coach Willie Taggart and his surging team are trying to win converts. But some will never give in. Florida and Florida State have been around longer, been making history longer. USF football has only been a reality for 20 years, and it has been bad reality at several points.

"I understand," Taggart said. "I grew up that way myself. I was for Florida State. Absolutely. Amp Lee. Derrick Brooks. Deion. There's much history there. That comes with time."

He added, "Keep winning and you build them into Bulls fans."

Tampa Bay is a college football town, but the Gators and Seminoles fans are out front. USF fights for attention with UF and FSU, as well as with the area's three pro sports teams.

"I've been an FSU fan since I was 12 years old," Robert Barnes said. "My grandma had season tickets and she took me to my first games."

Barnes, who is the orchestra director at Mann Middle School in Brandon, received his bachelor's degree in music education from USF. He was there from 2003-07, during USF football's best run of history, and attended most of the big games. Barnes went to FSU for his graduate degree in music performance. He loves USF. Except on one day this season. When the horn sounds, he's a Seminole.

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"Grandma got to me first," Barnes said.

There are a lot of stories like that. There are no acts of treason here. Just what you grew up with and who you're sticking with. Debra Gell's formative football moments were as an FSU fan.

"I'm not conflicted. I'm a Debra Divided, like the shirt says," she said. "I go into this game a winner either way. But I'm for FSU."

Her son Jason is also a lawyer. He went to USF undergrad. But Jason's wife went to FSU. There's a lot of cross-wiring in this town and state. Yeah, Jason is divided, too.

Then there's Debra Gell's fiance.

"He went to Michigan," Gell said with a laugh. "He is no help with this dilemma."

There will be double agents out there today. Check the passports. You'll find dual citizens.

That's life.

That won't keep Taggart from trying an intervention here and there. Take a couple of weeks ago. Taggart was at a Bulls pep rally before the Northern Illinois game. He spotted a USF student walking past it wearing a … Florida shirt. Taggart called the kid over.


"I just gave him a Bulls shirt," Taggart said with a smile. "I made him sing the fight song."

Fight, fight, fight.

A win would be a huge moment for USF football history and pride.

For those of you attending, look for Debra and that shirt.

Divided, not conflicted.

Some games you just can't win.