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College football

USF-UCF comes to fruition

The Division I-A schools, less than two hours apart, will begin a football rivalry in 2005.

By PETE YOUNG
Published May 3, 2003

TAMPA - The genesis of the South Florida-Central Florida football series occurred, appropriately, just off Interstate 4 at a midpoint between the campuses.

In December, at a roadside diner along the interstate that connects the burgeoning Division I football programs, athletic directors Lee Roy Selmon and Steve Orsini met halfway and agreed to make it happen.

Five months later, the series UCF and USF fans have been clamoring for - most of them, at least - is a reality, with games scheduled for mid September in 2005 (in Tampa) and 2006 (Orlando). The schools agreed to continue the home-and-home series on an annual basis beyond that.

"It's the new "War on I-4,' " said Orsini, co-opting the slogan used by Tampa Bay and Orlando in the Arena Football League. "From the time Lee Roy and I met in person in Lakeland, I saw the interest. The thing that put it over the top was Lee Roy Selmon's willingness to work it out.

"Our fans, players, administrators, the community - they all wanted to see this happen. It's a natural rivalry."

It might be a natural rivalry, but there were obstacles. The Knights overbooked future schedules and needed to clear out games. The Bulls needed to establish the program (1997 was their first season), make the transition to Division I-A (2001) and get started in Conference USA (this fall) before they could make arrangements for an annual nonconference series.

"The timing is right to get this series started," Selmon said. "While we have a lot of football to be excited about at USF in the two years before the series starts - including our first season in Conference USA - we hope that when 2005 and 2006 arrive, the games will present an exciting college football atmosphere for fans from both universities to get excited about."

The anticipated hype, large crowds and launching of a rivalry proved too enticing.

"People love rivalries, and when you're a competitor, you just love it. It's healthy," Orsini said. "It's a win-win situation for the fans, for the exposure of the programs, for the potential revenue increase. Lee Roy has said he feels the same way."

UCF coach Mike Kruczek had been pushing for an annual series, and he occasionally needled the Bulls. USF coach Jim Leavitt has said it would happen in time but it would be a better series if both schools were in conferences. UCF joined the Mid-American Conference last season. Game on.

"I'm focused on summer workouts, (the 2003 opener at) Alabama and Conference USA. I'll focus on UCF when the time comes," Leavitt said. "I live day to day. I hope I'm alive when we play them."

The Knights started playing Division III football in 1979, ascended to I-AA in 1990 and I-A in 1996. A UCF-USF series first was broached by administrators in 1997.

Orsini, who came to UCF in June, said discussions reached higher levels. The school presidents - USF's Judy Genshaft and UCF's John Hitt - and the respective board of trustees chairmans have talked about it, he said, and Lee Constantine, a state senator, has been a proponent.

"This is exciting for both communities," Genshaft said. "We look forward to hosting the first high-tech corridor matchup at Raymond James Stadium."

Earlier this year, Eastern Michigan and Baylor dropped USF from their 2003 schedules, and Orsini pitched a 2003 game to Selmon, but it could not be arranged. After 2006, Orsini said the series could be moved to the end of the season, near Thanksgiving, if both schools can work it out with their conferences.

Also, the schools could meet before 2005: representatives of the MAC and C-USA play in the GMAC Bowl.

2003 SCHEDULE UPDATE: USF has 10 of a possible 12 games scheduled for the fall - eight conference games plus at Alabama and vs. I-AA Nicholls State - and Selmon said the Bulls will add a sixth home game, probably against a I-AA opponent.

Possibilities are Bethune-Cookman and Maine. B-CC has a mutual open date, Sept. 13, and is seeking another game. The Wildcats have 10 scheduled this fall, including four at home and two at nearby neutral sites, so they might be amenable to a game in Tampa.

Maine has been in contact with USF. The Black Bears have been to the quarterfinals of the I-AA playoffs the past two seasons, losing to Georgia Southern in 2002, and are seeking games against I-A teams. It would be a return trip to Florida for Maine, which defeated Florida International 33-7 last season.

[Last modified May 3, 2003, 02:06:29]


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