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Fanning the flames

USF fans enjoy a whole new level of big-time college football as their Bulls play in a new conference this season.

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
Published October 18, 2003

[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
STUDENT SPIRIT: Much of the newfound excitement about USF football has come from students, who gleefully slather paint across their bodies, like these at the Oct. 10 game against TCU, to show their school spirit. They stand the entire game, singing, cheering -- and booing opponents.

VICTORY ROCKS: Ken Siebert, a 1996 graduate, was pumped up for another game after seeing USF beat Louisville: "Last weekend, the place was electric."
Terri Warnke, left, gets fired up with her granddaughter Anna, 2, and son Jason Warnke before the start of the game against TCU. Warnke, a USF graduate, hopes that big wins, such as USF's upset of Louisville, will help wake up local football fans.
Allie McPhail, 10, of St. Petersburg has her face painted with the new USF logo during tailgating festivities. "It's a family atmosphere," said Allie's mom, Pauline McPhail.

TAMPA - It's game night, and the winds of change drift through Parking Lot 6 smelling heavily of bratwurst, burgers and beer.

For years, the diehards have parked on this patch of grass along Himes Avenue and shuffled north toward the stadium to watch college football.

But not until this season - when the University of South Florida joined Conference USA, the hype intensified and more fans began to arrive - has anyone in this lot really lived college football.

They are living it now. Just look around.

There are small grills, large grills, gas grills, charcoal grills, double-decker grills, grills with names like "Bull Train Barbeque," grills with team records painted on the side, grills under tents, grills atop truck beds, grills spreading the smell of red meat and baked beans for hundreds of yards.

There is the school marching band, the Herd of Thunder, pacing through the parking lot in crisp green uniforms, banging drums, clanging cymbals, blowing horns, belting out a fight song: "For green and gold we stand united ... "

There are the students, huddled around overflowing coolers and too-loud stereos that blare rap, country, classic rock. The guys hold Budweisers and wear sweat-stained USF ball caps and T-shirts with slogans like, "The Right Place, the Right Time, the Right Team." The girls, perfectly unperspiring in the humid evening, sway to the music in sundresses, shorts or faded jeans.

There is university president Judy Genshaft in a perfectly-pressed green suit, dodging footballs that small boys toss around her as she flits through the crowd, smiling, waving, shaking hands.

Here come the Winnebagos and charter buses, turning into Lot 6 with scores of alumni aboard. Here come the families, who place their infants in playpens and start grilling.

Here comes a young man, walking around saying, "This is the closest I've ever gotten to college." And a young woman behind him, fretting, "I just don't know which sororities are decent!"

Here comes Erical Shaw, mother of freshman defensive tackle Allen Cray, walking wide-eyed through the crowd. It's her first time at a USF game; she drove down from Lake City, population 9,980. More people than that are tailgating around her.

"I didn't realize it was this big," she keeps saying. "I didn't expect this at all."

Few people did.

After all, this is not The Swamp. This is not Doak Campbell Stadium. This is not the Orange Bowl.

This is Raymond James Stadium on an October night, and the Bucs are out of town. But the USF Bulls are playing. And the people have come in droves to cheer - to truly experience - big-time college football.

Finally, seven years in, pride and passion have taken root in Parking Lot 6.

* * *

When that first kickoff sailed into the evening of Sept. 6, 1997, more than 49,000 people showed up at Houlihan Stadium to see it. Tampa Bay's largest university finally had football.

People painted their faces green and gold. They tailgated in Al Lopez Park. And they found plenty to cheer about that night, as the Bulls spanked Kentucky Wesleyan 80-3. But the road to the big leagues of college football was uphill. The team posted a losing record that first season against mostly mediocre opponents.

After the first game, attendance leveled off. Even after the team began playing in new Raymond James Stadium the next season, attendance rarely reached 30,000.

But slowly, steadily, the Bulls improved. They took on tougher opponents, coach Jim Leavitt courted more talented recruits and the wins piled up.

On Sept. 4, 1999, Conference USA officials decided to admit USF as a football member in 2003. In 2001, the Bulls officially became a I-A program.

But last season eclipsed every other. The team posted a 9-2 record, its only losses coming against traditional football powerhouses Oklahoma and Arkansas. It beat its first ranked opponent, Bowling Green, and extended the country's second-longest home win streak to 19 games.

Leavitt vowed to run naked through the streets of Tampa if it would help the Bulls secure their first bowl game. Despite a top-30 ranking in most polls, the team was passed over for a postseason bowl.

Still, USF finally had earned a measure of respect and national attention.

People noticed.

An extra buzz surrounded the team as the 2003 season began in August. The Bulls finally would belong to a conference, which meant more television time and better chances for a bowl bid.

Even after an opening-game loss to tradition-packed Alabama, the people kept coming to Raymond James Stadium for home games, dressed in school colors and screaming plenty loud.

Tonight at 7 p.m. the fans will gather once more, as the team faces Charleston Southern's Buccaneers.

A crowd of 36,044 - the largest ever for a Bulls game in Raymond James and second only to the team's inaugural game - showed up for an Oct. 4 overtime win against Louisville. Attendance this year has averaged 31,957 through Oct. 12, a 21.5 percent increase from the 2002 season.

Those numbers don't compare to the masses that pack stadiums in Gainesville, Tallahassee or Miami, but the increase shows that USF fans are multiplying.

The difference this year, it seems, is that the fans finally have found a swagger, a certainty that USF football belongs on the national stage.

"It was an empty feeling before," said Jesus Perez, a 1980 USF grad who has had season tickets since the program began. "You knew you were not at the same level. You were not the caliber of the big boys in Florida."

Perez and his wife, Mary, remember when high school bands played in front of half-filled stands. Now the couple has to park farther away than ever before, but they don't seem to mind.

"Now," said Mary, wearing green and gold beads, "we have somebody to root for."

* * *

Much of the newfound excitement has come from students, who gleefully slather paint across their bodies and tear into the stadium like a pack of rabid dogs. They stand the entire game, singing, cheering and booing opponents.

"The students bring a lot more energy," Tim Newman, a USF graduate who teaches at River Ridge High School in Pasco County, said as he packed up his grill in Lot 6 and headed toward the game.

"There's a tradition building here. Before, it was just us old farts."

But students don't account entirely for the new wave of fan spirit. USF games have proven a draw for all slices of the community, families included.

Many come because tickets to USF games cost a fraction of Buccaneers' tickets, assuming anyone can even find a Bucs ticket. And each USF ticket, at least for now, guarantees a lower-level seat.

Asked to compare the experience at a USF game with that of a Bucs game, alumna Marcy Kohler just laughed. "I can't," she said. "I'm a teacher. I can't afford (the Bucs)."

Some folks come out of loyalty. Said Perez, the 1980 graduate: "The Bucs are a franchise. I have an allegiance to this school."

Others come because Bulls games are usually played on Saturday nights, when the hot Florida sun has long disappeared. Some come because it's the only game in town.

"You've got to support the hometown team," said Kevin Thompson of St. Petersburg. "I'm a (Miami) Hurricane fan, but I'm becoming a USF fan."

Others enjoy that Raymond James, unlike most on-campus stadiums, serves beer during USF games. Many fans also say that USF crowds tend to be slightly less belligerent, a little more mellow, than the Sunday afternoon lot that cheers the Bucs.

But perhaps more than anything, new fans are drawn by the pure zeal that surrounds this team. There is nothing to lose, no expectations other than to party and enjoy.

"There are no bandwagon fans here," Thompson said. "It's not like they have a history of national titles. But (the people) are still here.

"It's beautiful."

* * *

As kickoff time approaches for the Texas Christian University game recently, green-and-gold loyalists new and old work their way into the stadium on a warm fall evening.

Inside, a massive image of the Super Bowl trophy spreads across a billboard with the words, "Buccaneers - World Champions."

That, along with the silent pirate ship, are the only hints that another team calls this place home.

On this night, yellow and green flags fly from the top of the stadium walls. The same colors fill the stands and cover the field, where "USF" is painted in one end zone, "Bulls" in the other.

The Herd of Thunder plays loudly and often. The cheerleaders bound from sideline to sideline. The overflowing student section collectively boos, as good students do, when the opponents take the field.

An announcer prods the crowd as kickoff nears: "This is our house!"

And it is.

Outside in Parking Lot 6, a few stragglers remain at their tailgate parties, finishing one last beer or bratwurst before heading into the game.

Darkness has fallen, but the lights of the stadium shine bright. The stragglers sit there in their folding chairs, listening to the rise and fall of cheers.

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