Thanks to my wonderful girlfriend I was lucky enough to attend the USF vs. West Virginia game in September. Along with Link and Big Mike we watched as a young program burst onto the national scene with a rousing 21-13 victory over the Mountaineers.
One of things that stood out to me was a fan sitting in front of me. It was a gentleman in his mid 40’s who was sporting a brand new USF visor to go along with his brand new USF T-Shirt and always classic camouflage shorts. As he and his drunken fans leered at the college girls walking by I noticed that he sported a cell phone holder on his belt. What kind of cell phone holder? Why a Florida Gator one of course.
That is the crux of the problem that now faces Bulls. What becomes of the fans that made their way to the front of the bandwagon while USF was crashing the party at the top of the BCS polls? Do they stay or do they go back to their Gators or ‘Noles or, God forbid, their ‘Canes? For the better part of two months even the Buccaneers and their decent start to the NFL season took a back seat to the wunderkinds of the Big East.
A reported 67,012 fans showed up for that match-up against West Virginia on September 28. It was a Friday night, but for once the fans were actually in their seats at kickoff. Maybe the fact that many of them had been tailgating since 10.00AM helped them show up on time, but still for a town that rivals Los Angeles for its game time tardiness it was an impressive feat.
However, now that the buzz around town has worn off what will become of the crowds? Thursday’s uninspired 30-27 loss to Rutgers destroyed any chance the Bulls had at winning the national title. It allows the smug commentators the satisfaction of knowing that the upstarts from Tampa won’t ruin their prestigious end of the season party. Will it affect the crowds?
The Bulls have the honor of playing in a large stadium. Whereas it doesn’t rival the seating capacity of Penn State or Michigan (both of whom can boost attendance over 100,000) it is still a fairly large stadium. More importantly when the stadium is full it is a very loud arena.
However, when it’s not full it has a dreary feeling to it. All of the empty red seats clash with the scattered green shirts in the near empty stadium. The student section is rowdy as always, but in other sections the atmosphere resembles a Saturday afternoon youth soccer game more than a major college football match. That is why fans outside of the TBA ridicule USF on message boards and leading analysts decry their tradition, or lack thereof.
In the future questions should be focused on how the team is playing, not where the school is located. More wins on the field and more support from the town will render the question of “Why is the University of South Florida located in the middle of the state?” moot. Win on the field and the taunts about geography will seem childish coming from fans of other teams.
USF, whose football team is only 11 seasons old, has to earn respect. Jim Leavitt’s leadership is slowly allowing them to do it on the field where early season upsets of Auburn and West Virginia shot the team up the BCS rankings. To earn respect off the field the fans need to continue to show up even if the ESPN cameras aren’t going to be there.
The Bulls are still in the hunt for the Big East championship and with that a bid to a major bowl. They need the fans to shrug off the loss to Rutgers and move on. The big test comes on November 3rd when the team plays at Raymond James once again. Will there be over 60,000 screaming fans there or 25,000 semi-inspired, glad to be outside on a Saturday afternoon quasi fans?
The answer to that question will show how far along this program has truly come along over the last few years.