USF won't move to the Big East for another year, but basketball coach Robert McCullum is already making a move to build his team with players from the heart of his new conference's recruiting territory.
McCullum already has a commitment from guard Chris Howard of Fort Washington, Md., who led Friendly High to two state championships. He's also a contender for a bruising post player in Dennard Abraham, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound Baltimore native.
And if Baltimore and Washington, are the gateway to the Big East's home turf, McCullum is working hard to land players from the heart of northeast basketball - New York City.
The Bulls are in the mix for three players from the New York Gauchos, a Bronx club team that has produced NBA stars such as Rod Strickland, Stephon Marbury and Kenny Anderson. USF is recruiting point guard Levance Fields and two-guard Saiquan Stone, both at Xaverian Academy, as well as guard Jessie Sapp, a Gauchos player now at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington.
The man escorting USF into key Big East neighborhoods is first-year assistant Julius Allen, a former Gauchos player who coached the team last year and has worked in the Baltimore area as a coach at Howard and Towson. To be able to recruit successfully in New York, a program must have someone on staff with strong local ties.
"He knows the city, and a lot of people here know who he is," said Dwayne Mitchell, a coach in the Gauchos program. "It's definitely going to help South Florida. They've got a great shot at these kids, because Tampa is a great place and Julius has a good relationship with those kids. If those kids give them a chance, it can definitely happen."
USF isn't forgetting its own backyard in the shift to the Big East. In landing a commitment from Brandon guard Zaronn Cann, the Bulls beat out one former Big East team (Virginia Tech, with former USF coach Seth Greenberg, to boot) and a future conference rival in West Virginia.
Building a sustained presence in the Northeast for recruiting will lead to a competitive showing on the court, another huge step in USF's transition to a major basketball league.
"If they're coming up here to recruit, they're going to have to keeping working hard," said National Christian coach Trevor Brown, noting that Georgetown and St. John's are also chasing Sapp. "What's going to be the biggest factor for them here is just how well they do once they're in the Big East."
DID NOT KNOW THAT: Jim Leavitt confirmed this week that in 1996, when he had been named as USF's first football coach, he also had an offer to coach in the NFL.
Vince Tobin, who was the defensive coordinator at Missouri when Leavitt played there, had been named coach of the Arizona Cardinals, and called his Leavitt and asked him to be his linebackers coach.
Leavitt, who would not coach his first game at USF for another year and a half, stuck to his commitment to the Bulls, even though the NFL job would have paid him better than the $75,000 annual salary at which he started at USF.
"I wanted to be a head coach," Leavitt said. "The money was a lot better there, but it wasn't about the money. It never has been."
Tobin, now a front-office executive with the Green Bay Packers, said he understood Leavitt's desire to be a head coach and only wished his timing was better.
"Looking back, I wish I had gone after him a year earlier," he said.
THIS AND THAT: USF and Army have had talks about extending their football rivalry after both schools leave Conference USA after this season, but don't expect anything soon. Army associate athletic director Tim Fitzpatrick said Army's schedule is full until the 2007 season, so a two-year deal with USF would begin no earlier than then. ... Active and retired military personnel can get a $2 discount on tickets to Saturday's game with Army if they show valid military identification at the time of purchase. ... USF will hold its Midnight Madness to open the start of basketball practice on Friday night, with festivities starting at 10 p.m. The men's and women's teams make their debuts at 11 p.m. and will play their first scrimmages of the season at midnight. It's a busy homecoming weekend in the Sun Dome, with a home volleyball match at 7 p.m. as well.