Big Yeast Rising

For too many years USF bore the burden of an unfortunate inferiority complex. “South Florida” was a confusing, geographic misnomer. The university was “merely a commuter school.” It was some Brobdingnagian misfit — the biggest school in the country without a football team. It was this area’s “best kept secret.” Etc.

No more.

USF is an acknowledged national player among urban research universities. It has taken quantum leaps in on-campus housing. Its annual regional economic impact is measured in 10 figures. It’s unabashedly accessible to its students and plays a key, hands-on partnership role — from health clinics to urban planning — with its community.

And, yes, it has a head-turning, 1-A football program that calls the best stadium in the country home.

And now that football team — and all other intercollegiate sports — will soon be part of the Big East Conference. Definitely, by 2005. Possibly, by 2004.

The Big East is big prestige and bigger dollars than USF is used to. It means entrée into the media markets of New York, Philadelphia and Washington. It means name-dropping Notre Dame. And it means the basketball program may finally find a niche other than under-achiever.

There’s also another reality. In the higher ed scheme of things, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re in a BCS conference or not. Nor should it matter how you are represented on the fields and courts of play. But it does. Unless you are an ivy-festooned institution founded in the 18th or 19th centuries, having this kind of high national profile matters a lot. And it matters across the board — from endowment gifts to student and faculty recruiting.

It took a while, but USF obviously has learned a key lesson. If you choose to play, you must play to win. With an enrollment of 40,000 and the nation’s 13th largest TV market, USF couldn’t be satisfied with staying in Conference USA any more than it could have been content with playing 1-AA football.

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