Judy Genshaft better get this one right. The future of sports at the University of South Florida depends on it.
Genshaft has done a lot of great things in her 18 years as USF president.
Hiring athletic directors is not among them.
Now she has to hire another. So how does she get this one right? By staying the heck out of the way.
She has swung and missed twice now in hiring ADs. She shouldn't get the chance to strike out.
Remember Doug Woolard? Nice man, but under his watch, college sports played a massive game of musical chairs for seats in a power conference and USF was left standing when the music stopped. Woolard was asleep as USF went from the Big East to a second-tier conference called the American Athletic Conference.
Then came Mark Harlan. Again, swell guy. Would love him for a neighbor. But not the greatest athletic director ever hired. He left last week to take the AD job at the University of Utah and that was a blessing for USF.
Harlan never seemed like the right hire for USF. He never really felt a part of Tampa Bay. He was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. He came with solid credentials, serving as the associate athletic director at UCLA.
Good on paper. Not so good in the actual job. He arrived at USF with the ability to do all the administrative things an AD should be able to do:
Hire coaches. Put together budgets. Make schedules.
But he was never able to do the two things USF needed more than anything else: raise money and get the town excited about USF sports. Those two things go hand-in-hand, and neither is easy to do in this market.
Under Woolard and Harlan, USF became a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, buried in the AAC.
So now it's up to Genshaft to find the right person to replace Harlan and there's already an encouraging sign. USF announced it is hiring a search firm to look a replacement. The last time, a search committee cost $100,000 and USF came up with Harlan. Still, there's hope that this time will go better, especially if Genshaft sticks with the university stuff while others deal with the sports stuff.
The committee should be asking two questions:
Who can make USF sports become relevant?
Who can raise money to do all the things USF needs to do to become relevant, both locally and nationally?
You'll hear plenty of names over the next couple of weeks, folks such as former Bucs star Derrick Brooks and Rob Higgins, the executive director of the Tampa Sports Commission. There will be others, too.
There's something to be said for local ties. You need someone who knows whose hands to shake and whose arms to twist in order to get things done.
At the same time, USF can't get so provincial that it ignores the best person for the job in favor of someone who already has an 813 area code.
Experience as an athletic director shouldn't be a prerequisite, but it should be a serious consideration.
USF athletics, sorry to say, needs a lot of work. Not necessarily on the playing fields, but everywhere else. You need someone who knows how college athletics works but is willing to think outside the box to make athletics at USF work.
There's no reason that USF shouldn't have the same reputation athletically as big-city universities such as Louisville and Miami. I mean, what does it say that Harlan left USF for a better job and that better job was Utah? Utah is, indeed, a better job, but it doesn't feel like it should be.
Whoever the next AD is, he or she will have plenty to do. USF athletics is at a critical crossroads.
USF desperately needs an indoor football facility that includes state-of-the-art everything, including training and medical facilities, coaches' offices and meeting rooms. If you want to be able to compete with the big boys for elite recruits, you need nice things.
The new AD also needs to figure out, once and for all, whether the football team should have an on-campus stadium.
He or she also will probably have to hire a new football coach because, at some point, Charlie Strong will want to move to a place with all the swanky stuff USF doesn't have.
He or she will need to make sure the awful men's basketball program gets its act together.
Most of all, the new athletic director should put a post-it note on his or her computer that simply says, "Get USF into a power conference'' and leave it there until it happens.
All of this — the facilities, the on-campus stadium, the men's hoops team, the conference — is up to the new athletic director.
And that is, ultimately, up to Genshaft. If she's smart, she will get plenty of help. Part of her legacy and the future of USF sports depends on it.