Pssst . . . can you keep a secret? The South Florida Bulls may well be back.
Hard-core Bulls fans already knew this, but the team served notice to the rest of the American Athletic Conference – and the country – with a convincing 44-3 win Thanksgiving night against UCF. The fans, the team and the school can be forgiven if there were times during the last six years when they wondered if this moment would ever arrive.
After becoming ranked faster than any program in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) history, soaring to a number-two ranking nationally for a time in 2007 and becoming a regular visitor to the Top 25 through 2009, the program fell on hard times.
Jim Leavitt, the coach who created the team and led it into the FBS, was terminated after the 2009 season amidst some controversy. The school hired East Carolina’s Skip Holtz, then considered one of the hottest young coaches in the country, to keep the program playing at a high level, but after a promising start (which included wins over Miami and Notre Dame) things fell apart quickly for Holtz. He was let go after three seasons.
Enter Willie Taggart, hired away in late 2012 from Western Kentucky. Things started inauspiciously for Taggart, as he went 2-10 in his inaugural season and the Bulls lost to archrival UCF for the first time ever. The team enjoyed a two-win improvement last year but the season ended with another loss to the Knights.
Now, suddenly, the Bulls are 8-4, second in the Eastern Division of the American Athletic Conference and they have a shot at playing in the AAC title game against either Navy or Houston. They’ll need a little help, as Temple must lose to Connecticut on Saturday night (Nov. 28). The Owls hold a one-game lead over the Bulls in their division, but USF beat Temple head-to-head so if they end up tied atop the East standings, USF holds the tiebreaker.
Even if the Bulls do run the table and win the entire AAC, the odds of receiving an invitation to one of the “New Year’s Six” bowls may be a little outside the team’s reach this season. In the new College Football Playoff system, the “Power Five” conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC) deigned to reserve one slot in those bowls for the highest-ranked team from the so-called “Group of Five” conferences (AAC, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt). A very unlikely host of things would have to happen for USF to become the highest-ranked team.
Still, the re-emergence of USF’s football program has positive implications for both the school and its conference, which has been the most competitive this year among the Group of Five.
For openers, winning increases revenue to the athletic department. USF helps make the conference (which also includes UCF) more competitive, and that increases the chances one of its teams will get a bid to one of the New Year’s Six bowls (Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Peach and Fiesta). Those bowls pay participants significantly more money that the other bowls, and all conference teams receive a share of that revenue.
The other advantage is on the academic side. Studies tend to be inconclusive about the impact of sports on academics, but common sense says there is a link. In the Fall Semester of 2006, the year before USF climbed to Number Two in the Associated Press poll, 44,251 students were enrolled at the school. This fall, the number climbed to 48,918, an increase of almost 11 percent. The university’s endowment has jumped from $237 million in 2000, the year before the school moved to the FBS, to $418 million in 2014. That’s an increase of more than 76 percent, all the more impressive because of the intervening financial collapse of 2008.
UCF can tell a similar story. When Daunte Culpepper – the quarterback who put UCF football on the map – first enrolled at the school in the Fall of 1995, he was one of 26,325 students. This fall, 17 years after Culpepper finished at UCF and went on to a Pro Bowl career in the NFL and two years after the Knights won the Fiesta Bowl, enrollment is 63,002. That’s an increase of almost 140 percent.
More than football is at work here, of course; USF has dedicated enormous sums to enhancing academic programs and recruiting outstanding students (as has UCF). But, it is impossible to ignore the visibility that comes with competitive athletics programs and the part those programs play in enhancing campus life. When the Wall Street Journal runs a lengthy feature on Harvard’s increased emphasis on athletics (November 2014), it’s clear that connection exists.
Stronger schools lead to a better-trained work force, one of the essential building blocks of economic development. Athletics have become part of the equation.
Done right, it’s a victory by any standard.
Spring Training Schedules Arrive, Teams Leave
Spring training is a lucrative business. The Florida Sports Foundation has estimated the spring games played here by 15 major league clubs are a $250 million piece of the $44 billion sports contribute to the state’s economy.
With spring training slightly more than three months away, 12 of those 15 teams have posted their spring training schedules. For two of them, it will be their last spring training at their Central Florida homes.
The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals will be leaving their current homes in Kissimmee and Viera for a new joint spring training facility in West Palm Beach. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was on hand in West Palm earlier this month for the groundbreaking of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. The $144 million complex is expected to be ready in time for 2017 spring training.
For the Nationals, the move will be a homecoming. Then known as the Montreal Expos, the team trained in West Palm from 1981 to 1997 before moving to Jupiter for five seasons and then to Viera, where they have played since 2003 (two years before the Expos became the Nationals). For the Astros, it will mark the end of more than 50 years in Central Florida. An expansion team born in 1962, the Astros trained their first two seasons in Arizona before moving to Cocoa Beach in 1964 and then to their current home in Kissimmee in 1985.
Jaguars to London Again
The NFL this week (Nov. 25) announced its three London games for 2016. As always, the Jacksonville Jaguars headline the London Series and will play divisional foe Indianapolis at Wembley Stadium on Oct. 2. The Jaguars first agreed in 2013 to play an annual game in London and the contract recently was extended through the 2020 season.
Wembley also will host an Oct. 30 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins.
London’s Twickenham Stadium will join the mix on Oct. 23, hosting a game between the St. Louis (or will it be Los Angeles?) Rams and an NFC East team to be determined.
Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of University of South Florida.