USF Hits Big Time: Pigskins Over Polymers?

For a 40-something institution, the University of South Florida has come very far, very fast.

One key barometer is that USF — with an enrollment of more than 39,000 students — is among the 20 largest universities in the country — and second in the Southeast. Another is that this prototypical metropolitan university of the 21st century is now exceeding $200 million annually in sponsored research. Its endowment is $218 million. In 1982 it was $4 million.

Then there are the world class reputations earned from (Alzheimer’s research at) the Roskamp Institute and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute as well as recognized areas of expertise in oceanography and aging. It’s well documented that USF is becoming a high-tech linchpin, a biotech bellwether and a key component in the fight against terrorism with its Center for Biological Defense.

Then six years ago, it fielded its first football team. This year it was bowl eligible.

We all know that renown in alternative fuel polymers is more important, but as a rite of higher educational passage to the Big Time, can you beat bowl eligibility?

Unfortunately, eligibility didn’t translate into an invitation, but that’s understandable, even if infuriating. This was USF’s last year of unaffiliated football independence, and that made all the difference. Bowl selections are typically not a matter of pure merit, but rather a function of conference tie-ins and economic impact-driven, chamber of commerce priorities. USF joins Conference USA in football next year and will no longer incur these sorts of scenarios.

Frankly, if USF were playing either Florida or Florida State this Saturday at the RayJay, it would be a “pick ’em” game. Last Sunday’s New York Times’ “Top 25” is illustrative. There was the requisite one-two of Miami and Ohio State and other household names in descending order after them. But at 19 — between Texas and Virginia and ahead of West Virginia, Auburn and, uh, FSU — was USF. Its BCS ranking is 24. Heady stuff for Tampa’s erstwhile “Drive-Thru U” and the days of Homecoming soccer games.

But for all the attention and acclaim generated by its football team, USF eventually will see — in retrospect — that 2002 was more than a season of nine or 10 games won, national respect garnered and a bowl bid earned — even if not proffered. It will also be the year of innocence lost.

It comes with success — and a bar raised very high very quickly. Will anything less than a blitzkrieg through Conference USA and a representative bowl game next year be considered disappointing? Will a RayJay crowd of less than 30,000 for, say, East Carolina be acceptable?

And then there’s the reality of having a head coach, Jim Leavitt, who is becoming a hot commodity in the marketplace. Peers with half his success are making more than twice as much. Leavitt, locally rooted and the only head coach the program has known, is salaried at $140,000 this season; it escalates to $220,000 in 2005. Once Athletic Director Lee Roy Selmon gets off schmooze control with the bowls, he will take up the renegotiation of Leavitt’s contract. Local media have already mounted a soapbox to lecture USF on how important it is to do “whatever it takes” to keep Leavitt here.

Coincidentally, USF President Judy Genshaft is also up for a raise. She has been at USF for two years and makes a base of $237,000 a year. All indications are that she too is below market — and that USF trustees are preparing a big boost.

That means USF is now poised to meet the final criterion of university heavyweight. It will be paying its football coach more — possibly a lot more — than its president. Pigskins over polymers?

Prepare for a professorial chorus of “skewed priorities” and rhetorical questions about what a university is for. It’s part of the growth process.

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