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Millions of reasons to resent our Cinderella

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist
Published November 17, 2005

Here, they are delightful.

Out there, they are an abomination.

Here, they are a wonderful example of desire and devotion. An uplifting tale of chasing the impossible dream.

Out there, they represent all that is wrong with the system. A bungled plan about to get the comeuppance it deserves.

Here is the South Florida Bulls.

Out there is the rest of the world.

Funny how they came to collide. Time was, USF was that pleasant school of parking lots where an NFL Hall of Famer was in charge of shaking hands.

And now, four games into a new conference schedule, the Bulls somehow have become the personification of NCAA greed and cronyism.

In case you hadn't noticed, USF is in a position to have cash registers ringing along Fowler Avenue and tongues wagging everywhere else.

The Bulls are three victories away from earning a BCS invitation, likely guaranteeing them a place in the Sugar or Orange bowls come New Year's.

Florida is heading to a lesser bowl. Florida State probably is too and, if not, then Miami will. Nebraska? Out of the picture. Arizona? Done. Michigan, Oklahoma, UCLA? All big schools who need help with their big bowl dreams.

But not USF. The Bulls are at home against Cincinnati on Saturday (should win), on the road against Connecticut on Nov. 26 (better win) and back at Raymond James against West Virginia on Dec. 3 (could win) with a BCS bid hanging in the balance as long as they continue to thrive.

How crazy is that?

Well, Alabama has been playing football since 1892, has been to 51 bowl games and is hoping for its first-ever bid since the formation of the BCS.

South Florida has been playing football since 1997, has never even been to a bowl, and could conceivably run into Alabama in the Sugar on Jan. 2.

Again, how crazy is that?

USF's entire athletic department budget is $18-million.

A BCS payout is projected in the $14-million to $17-million range.

These are all reasons critics call the BCS system a sham, which kind of makes the Bulls the sham-ettes. But here's the thing: It's not USF's fault.

The issue is that the BCS is essentially a cartel of the nation's largest conferences. And, somehow, the Big East Conference got invited to play along.

That means the Big East champ is automatically included while, say, the Mountain West or Western Athletic winners are watching with noses pressed to the glass. The system automatically leaves about 50 schools perpetually ticked off because they have little chance of cashing a BCS check.

Now, it won't always be this way. There are mechanisms involved that will strip a conference of its automatic bid if its best teams do not finish high enough in the polls during a period of several seasons.

But those reviews are still some years off and, for now, USF is the beneficiary of the Big East's rather inflated stature.

Texas Christian already has finished its season with a 10-1 record and is ranked 15th in the AP poll, but it has little chance at a BCS bowl because it had the misfortune of dominating the wrong league. USF is 5-3, a ballot box shy of the Top 25, and still in contention for a big payday.

"It's just the way the rule book is written right now," TCU coach Gary Patterson told the Austin American-Statesman. "But we're more deserving than some of those teams."

To whom do you suppose he was referring?

The unfortunate part of this entire saga is no one is stopping to appreciate what USF is attempting to accomplish.

This is a school with 298 fewer victories than Bobby Bowden. A school that started from scratch and, within a decade, was already an itch.

The Bulls do not have the best recruits, the richest boosters, the most rabid students, and yet coach Jim Leavitt has ESPN and Sports Illustrated arguing about this precocious crew from Tampa.

You know, if this were the NCAA basketball tournament, the Bulls would be Gonzaga multiplied by 10. Their story would be refreshing. Their path would be celebrated. Everyone would talk about how wonderful it is to find a small program with oversized dreams. Cinderella in shoulder pads.

Except that's not what's happening. Instead, USF hears derision. Unless, of course, they're hearing sarcasm. And it's all due to business and politics.

The people who want the BCS system revamped are pointing at USF. The people who want a college football playoff are pointing at USF. The bowls worried about the number of people in the bleachers and the executives worried about the number of TV viewers are all pointing at USF.

And no one is defending the Bulls.

Not even their coach.

Leavitt is so concerned about looking too far ahead, he refuses to be drawn into a BCS debate. Or to consider how the program's profile has been raised, even in the face of controversy.

"These players have worked so hard. So hard," Leavitt said. "I want them to keep looking one step at a time. We're at the halfway point of the Big East schedule. That's all. We haven't accomplished anything yet."

Oh, but they have.

The Bulls have convinced us to pay attention.

Not just here.

Out there, too.

[Last modified November 17, 2005, 01:32:18]

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