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College football

Bulls gaining a national presence

By JOHN ROMANO
Published October 5, 2003

TAMPA - It is a snapshot, nothing more. A glimpse, not entirely trusted. It is one day of a four-month season, one game in the building of a program.

But it is where you see South Florida today.

Dancing at midfield.

Jumping into each other's arms. Shouting above the band's melody.

Martin Gramatica is kissing the top of brother Santiago's head. Kevin Verpaele is lifting his toddler daughter over the wall of the bleachers. Filthy, sweaty, enormous men are rolling on the ground in an embrace that would shame the characters of From Here to Eternity.

USF is eight days past its Conference USA debut and already standing at the forefront of the league. The Bulls beat Louisville 31-28 in double overtime but, by night's end, the result was almost secondary.

It was the impression that mattered. The effort that astounded.

The university without fanfare is getting attention. The team without a history is creating its own.

"Words can't describe what this means," said Verpaele, a safety from Merritt Island. "They say a picture is worth a thousand words? That scene was worth about a million. All the hard work we've put in, all the fighting, all the blood, all the tears? This is what it is for."

It is true, the Bulls are not quite ready to leave anonymity behind. They wake up today the same team they were yesterday.

But somehow they appear different.

Their backs are straighter. Their heads are higher. Their names are sounding more familiar by the hour.

"We've come a long way in a short time," safety J.R. Reed said. "I don't know if people will recognize us now, but they'd be stupid not too."

It was not just the victory. There are, after all, bigger upsets every Saturday. This game was special for its impact, its dramatics and, yes, its vindication.

South Florida was arguably the best team in the conference in 2002, but the league's higher-ups made the Bulls spend one more season on the sideline.

Today, it does not matter.

This morning, it hurts a little less.

Too much of the season remains to automatically assume USF will stay atop the league. There is plenty of time for the Bulls to fall over their feet, perhaps as soon as Friday against TCU.

But USF has served notice that it will be ignored no longer.

"It was pretty big," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "Yeah, it was pretty big."

You might argue it is the difference of one score. The difference between an interception in overtime. Or the difference of 10 seconds in regulation.

But those are the differences in success. The differences you do not expect to see in a team that just graduated a landmark senior class.

For a young program, it is not easy to recycle quickly. The parts are not always interchangeable, the momentum never is guaranteed.

The loss of leadership also canmean the loss of identity in a program with so little tradition on which it can build.

It shows in a variety of ways.

In special teams, where the Bulls committed four penalties for 42 yards. In experience, where a 275-pound Louisville tight end could be misplaced by linebackers in the end zone. In composure, where a stifling defense suddenly can grow timid.

Yet the Bulls were the team that stood up at the end. Ronnie Banks is the quarterback who rebounded from a terrible two quarters and delivered the 67-yard drive in the final minutes.

This was a game on which USF's schedule was built. Not merely as a Conference USA meeting, but as a way to measure a program's progress.

There have been higher profile opponents in the past, an Arkansas, Oklahoma or Alabama. USF is certainly not there. There has been fodder such as North Texas, Connecticut and Nicholls State. And the Bulls are clearly past that.

This was the chair that fit. The porridge that tasted right. A team above the dreck, but not quite in the company of the elite.

Okay, as comparisons go, it is not quite justice. Louisville had a head start of, oh, about 80 years in football. The Cardinals have won two of the past three conference titles and the polls have been beckoning.

Yet this is the avenue USF wishes to walk. The image it is trying to project. When they want to preen, the Bulls pretend they are Louisville.

Entering their seventh season of football, the Bulls have no business measuring themselves on this level. And, yet, here they are.

"A couple of years ago, everybody said we didn't belong here. They wanted us to wait. Now look at this," said defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz, waving toward the pile of students and players in a midfield mosh pit.

"Look at everybody here. This is what college football is all about. It's good to see that it's finally made it to Tampa."

It was just one of many snapshots of the night.

Still, it is worth remembering.

[Last modified October 5, 2003, 01:49:47]


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