Unlike UCF, South Florida blew its chance at football's bigtime | David Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports

Florida football fans generally consider UCF a loudmouth punk, so they’d just as soon forget their last encounter with one of the state’s directional schools.

The upstart Knights kicked sand in UF’s flagship-school face in last year’s Gasparilla Bowl. Such humiliation won’t be a concern this Saturday night.

South Florida is coming to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Billy Napier is paying the requisite respects to the Bulls, but nobody is particularly worried about this directional encounter.

The Gators are 24½-point favorites, which is 18 fewer than they were supposed to beat the Knights by last December. The contrast illustrates how UCF and USF took differing directions to get where they are now.

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Why have USF and UCF gone in  opposite directions?

The UCF Knights have essentially arrived. They’ve secured a spot in the Big 12 conference and will enjoy all the money and privileges of Power Five membership.

The Bulls, alas, have essentially blown it.

They could have gotten a golden ticket like UCF, but the school lacked the vision and resolve shown by its rival up Interstate 4.

Fifteen years ago, it was hard to tell the C school from the S school. They were big commuter institutions with lots of students and not much national identity. Both had decided football would help them make names for themselves.

The schools dreamed big, and why not?

Both were relatively young and located in bustling metropolitan areas. There were plenty of recruits within driving distances of campus. They might not get the 5-stars, but they could develop enough 3-stars to turn Florida’s Big Three of UF, FSU and Miami into at least a Big 3.5.

To get there, UCF built an on-campus stadium, spent money, made good hires and pretty much irritated the world into noticing it.

The school insisted on being called “UCF,” not “Central Florida.” It squeezed the best two coaching years out of Scott Frost’s life, going unbeaten in 2017 and turning that into a marketing campaign.

The Knights declared themselves national champs, threw a parade, trolled mighty Alabama and erected billboards declaring itself “The Future of College Football.”

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America snickered, but it also noticed. UCF became a player.

USF became an afterthought.

The past 15 years would make good fodder for a course in mismanagement. It would certainly be popular at UCF’s College of Business Administration.

USF sneered at its rival up Interstate 4, and not without reason. It was in the relatively prestigious Big East, while UCF was in middling Conference USA.

In a cosmic turn of events that will baffle football scholars for centuries, the Bulls ascended to the No. 2 spot in the BCS poll on Oct. 14, 2007.

They’d just beaten UCF 64-12 in front of 65,948 fans at Raymond James Stadium. It was the third of a four-game series USF had been guilted into playing.

The Bulls didn’t think UCF belonged on the same field, much less in the same league. The Knights tried to get into the Big East for years, but USF president Judy Genshaft lobbied to keep them out.

What USF leaders failed to do was build an infrastructure to support their football aspirations. There was no real push to build an on-campus stadium, or even an indoor practice facility.

Things began unraveling in 2009 when coach Jim Leavitt went on a halftime rant and struck a player. He denied it, but the scandal cost him his job. Then Leavitt apparently hired a witch doctor to put a curse on anyone who ever took his old job.

USF hired Skip Holtz, Willie Taggart, Charlie Strong and now Jeff Scott. UCF hired Frost, Josh Heupel and Gus Malzahn.

When Oklahoma and Texas decided to bolt for the SEC, UCF had positioned itself to take advantage of the upheaval. The Big 12 grabbed BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and the directional school from Orlando.

The directional school from Tampa got a, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

UCF is by no means Alabama and the Big 12 isn’t the SEC, but its members banked $42.6 million in TV revenue last year. That’s about $35 million more than UCF got in the AAC.

That’s where USF is stuck. But at least it got its wish to not be in the same conference as UCF.

Will a Tampa Bay-area or campus stadium help USF?

Now the Bulls are scrambling to play catch-up. With four wins in their past 27 games, it’s a long slog.

But they are close to opening an indoor football facility. There’s even serious talk about building a stadium on campus.

“Either we’re going to be in the game, or we’re not going to be in the game,” Will Weatherford, the chairman of USF’s Board of Trustees, told the Tampa Bay Times.

The school could’ve used that attitude 15 years ago. Now the expansion gravy train has left the station, and there’s no telling if USF will get another shot.

At this point, the Bulls would be happy to maintain their dignity against Florida. As for actually beating the Gators, they can always draw inspiration from last year’s Gasparilla Bowl.

Then again, only one of the state’s directional schools has shown it knows how to make a big dream come true. And it sure isn’t USF.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley.