Conference USA told USF to wait. This year, the Bulls sent a message.
By JOSH GAJEWSKI
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2002
HOUSTON -- There are "statement games" and then there are statement seasons. Bowl or no bowl, South Florida's 2002 campaign has been the latter.
A 32-14 win over Houston at Robertson Stadium on Saturday completed a perfect season against teams from Conference USA, the league USF hoped it would enter in 2001. It instead will do so next season. The Bulls squeezed out three-point wins over C-USA members Southern Mississippi and Memphis and beat East Carolina going away.
Saturday's regular-season finale was an exclamation point.
"One of our goals was to beat all the C-USA teams we would play, and we went out and did it," USF receiver Hugh Smith said. "We're the conference champions. We're the conference champions and we deserve to go to a bowl."
But because of the decision made by C-USA on Oct. 12, 1999, that the Bulls would enter conference play in 2003 instead of 2001, no C-USA trophy or any other memento was given to acknowledge the Bulls' dominance against the league. That almost made some USF players want to go digging. Literally.
"We were going to go out and dig up the Conference USA (logo) out there (painted on the Robertson Stadium turf) and take it home, but we thought we'd do it with a little bit more class and take the win and keep going," said USF quarterback Marquel Blackwell, a four-year starter who may have played his final collegiate game.
When Blackwell was informed of East Carolina's win over Texas Christian, which dropped TCU, the conference leader going in at 5-1 in the league, into a tie for the top spot, Blackwell, his hands pulling on the collar of his shoulder pads, just shook his head and said, "You know what I'm saying? It's crazy.
"It's frustrating to a point but you learn to accept things you can't control," Blackwell added. "Everybody knows with our wins in C-USA that we would (have been) in the top echelon (of the league)."
Despite his players' proclamations, USF coach Jim Leavitt veered from making any more what-if-type comments.
"I don't want anybody to think that we're all this or all that as far as Conference USA goes," he said. "It's an outstanding conference and we understand that and we are humbly excited about entering next year, and we're nothing more than that.
"It's hard when the league makes decisions to know what we may or may not do (performance-wise). In all fairness, we wanted to go (into C-USA) in 2001 only because I had recruited with that in mind.
"(Friday night) I said (to the team) that one of the hardest days I've had since we've been here was the day (former USF athletic director) Paul Griffin told me we were not going to go in 2001. I sat there almost emotionless and I asked, 'What am I going to tell these coaches, what am I going to tell these players?' It was real hard. But I'm not pointing to the conference; they have to do what they feel is best for the league."