BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Compliment them at your own risk.
Go ahead. Tell the players of South Florida how plucky they are. Remind them of how they had Alabama on the ropes. Let them know how young they are and how far they've come.
Pat them on their backs. Chuck them on their shoulders. Tousle the hair on their scrappy little heads.
And be careful you don't lose an arm.
The Bulls don't want to hear it, okay? Save the comments about how close they came and how cuddly they looked. Stop the praise and change the perception. USF doesn't want to be anyone's cute little brother. It doesn't want to be Spartacus.
The Bulls lost, okay?
And if you want to make them happy, you can be as ticked off about it as they were.
Did you see that game get away? Were you there when Alabama went roaring past? Do you have any idea what happened to their poise, their fire and their 10-point lead?
One moment USF was ahead 17-7 and in charge of the day and the next, they were on their heels, confounded and dazed, trying to figure out their last mistake while making their next one. The change was as quick as flicking off a light switch.
Alabama won 40-17 and it was only the mercy of Mike Shula, old Coach Boo Boo, that kept it from being worse.
So go on. Let it annoy you. Talk about how the team blew a chance at victory. Talk about what it let slip away. Get mad.
USF coach Jim Leavitt certainly did. His post-game review was, well, loud. Also long. And harsh and passionate and pointed.
"I brought the heat," he said, a little sheepishly. "I let my emotions get the best of me."
In summation, Leavitt pointed out that, gee, it would have been nice to play two halves instead of one and, golly, he prefers winning to losing and, by gum, he sure would like to see a little better coaching and a little better playing. To be accurate, Leavitt put it a little stronger.
"I'd have been disappointed in him if he hadn't been mad," quarterback Ronnie Banks said. "We let him down. I let him down."
"I wouldn't want a coach who didn't get mad at us at a time like this," center Alex Herron said. "That's why I think (Leavitt) is one of the best coaches out there. There is no such thing as being happy about coming close. That's not our motto."
There is a tendency to treat a relatively new program as the Little Engine that Could. After all, Alabama has a 102-year head start on USF, and it has the 12 national championships and statues of Bear Bryant. And, despite its recent scrimmages with the NCAA, Alabama still recruits off the top shelf. Given all that, the snapshot of USF leading by 10 in the first half will be enough for some fans.
Certainly, it was a surprising picture. After 28 minutes of play, the Bulls completely outplayed Alabama. They led 17-7, and Alabama's points had come on a tipped pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. At the time, two things seemed clear: USF had a legitimate shot to win, and for a coach, Alabama had hired Frank Sinatra Jr.
If USF wins this, the thought was at halftime, Shula wouldn't be allowed to live and Leavitt, a coach Alabama had flirted with, wouldn't be allowed to leave. You could almost sense the Tide crowd re-assessing fired coach Mike Price. Hey, what's a little smut among friends?
Then it changed. One minute, USF was the roadrunner, and the next it was the coyote, standing in midair after running off the cliff, eyes wide in that moment before the fall.
Alabama hit a long pass. USF didn't cover a slant. USF fumbled a kickoff. In a 69-second flurry, the Tide was tied.
Just like that, the fire was gone from the Bulls. USF was on its heels, absorbing instead of attacking, chasing instead of challenging. Alabama threw where it wanted to - Hey, who told Shula about the pass? Wait until Trent Dilfer hears about this. - and eventually, its huge offensive line wore down the Bulls. The Tide kept the ball the last 61/2 minutes without throwing a pass.
Let's face it. If USF wants to be treated as a big-time program, then, yes, it deserves some criticism for that second half. It mailed it in. It didn't compete.
"We should have won by 14 points, easily," linebacker Maurice Jones said. "We let it get away. They aren't that good."
How good is South Florida? At this point, we don't know. As Leavitt says, there is a lot of work to be done.
At this point, the Bulls have to become stronger mentally, more composed, more resilient. They have to do a better job with pass coverage and with the pass rush. They have to run the ball better. They have to be more consistent. They have to play to their own expectations.
Most of all, they have to let someone else answer the questions about coming close.