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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Now nation knows who Bulls are
By RODNEY THRASH, Times Staff Writer
Published September 28, 2007
Wayne Ward of the Tampa Sports Authority paints the USF logo at midfield of Raymond James Stadium on Thursday.
[Ken Helle | Times]
[Chris Zuppa | Times]
Senior Sean Bell, 32, tries on a visor at Bulls Outfitter. "It's about time," Bell said of USF's football success. "I'm originally a Florida State fan. (Now) I can come home."
TAMPA - It happens often when USF students tell people where they attend school.
First comes the puzzled look, then the questions:
"You forget to apply to a real school?"
Now, people can't talk smack.
The University of South Florida's football team is nationally ranked. Not even Michigan and Notre Dame, the winningest programs in college football history, can say that this year.
And tonight, before a record crowd, the Bulls take on No. 5 West Virginia in a nationally televised matchup on ESPN2 that has the potential to reach millions.
"They don't go 'where's that' now," said Craig Brunstein, a USF junior. "It's sad, but true: A good athletic program brings attention to the university."
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This is precisely what USF hoped for in September 1997 when the Bulls stampeded onto the field of Houlihan's Stadium for their inaugural football game.
Students camping out in the rain for tickets.
ESPN crews filming the campus and the football team's star players.
Features in the New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today.
"That's what I like," said Lee Roy Selmon, the NFL hall of famer and former USF athletic director whose credibility and fundraising helped the school's football program move into the big leagues. "The university is getting real national exposure."
Unlike storied football powerhouses in Gainesville, Miami and Tallahassee, this is uncharted ground for Tampa, whose major university has spent years trying to shed a long-held image as a commuter school.
USF achieved national football prominence by breaking into the top 25 rankings faster than any other Division I-A program in the modern era. Boise State held the previous record: Seven years, 13 weeks. USF did it in seven years, four weeks.
"I certainly didn't anticipate it happening as fast as it has," said Selmon, now president of the athletic department's philanthropic arm, the USF Foundation Partnership for Athletics. "It's the product of a lot of hard work and coach (Jim) Leavitt, staff, the players he's recruited through the years. The goal has always been to compete at the highest level."
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College football is big business, not just for universities, but the cities where they're based.
Area businesses that experienced lulls during the football team's quieter years can't keep enough USF green and gold on their racks. Bulls gear has been flying off store shelves ever since Sept. 8, the day a then-unranked USF team defeated Auburn University and knocked it out of the top 25.
"I had an order from Brazil," said Brunstein, the USF student and owner of the Bulls Outfitter on Fowler Avenue. "It's been nonstop."
At It's Bucs & Bulls Heaven, USF's official merchandiser, sales of Bulls paraphernalia are close to eclipsing sales of Tampa Bay Buccaneers gear. The amount of floor space designated for USF has grown to 40 percent since September 2005, when the N Florida Avenue store started carrying the USF brand.
"We started off small," said Jeffrey Neil Fox, store owner and a lifetime member of USF's alumni association. "Now it's just really heated up."
USF still has a long way to go in the merchandising front. North Carolina's SportScanINFO, which tracks college merchandise sales nationally, says USF hasn't broken the top 50 schools.
Even local governments are getting in on the USF football frenzy. The cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace proclaimed a whole day in honor of the school today.
During tonight's game, SunTrust Bank will illuminate its 36-story downtown building in the school's colors. Crews at Raymond James Stadium, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' home and the site of tonight's USF game, painted over the Bucs logo. In its place, they spray painted the school's green and gold U logo.
At USF, where enrollment has jumped from 39,607 in 2002 to 45,000 in 2007, alumni boosters are donating more, and students are proud to boast their affiliation with the state's third-largest public university.
"People that go to the University of Florida like to brag about going to the University of Florida because they win a lot of championships," said Joe Rienzi, a USF junior. "To see this school growing and getting more attention, students are realizing, 'Hey, football is real and this is a real student body.'"
Some early critics of USF's football program said the school should be known for more than just football. But president Judy Genshaft says a winning athletic program will help USF recruit top faculty and staff members and better market the school's academic programs.
"Those top-ranked professors typically come from top-ranked institutions," she said. "Most top-ranked institutions also have Tier 1 athletics.
"You get people introduced through athletics, take them by the hand and introduce them to the rest of the university."
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No doubt about it: USF has come a long way from the days when, because there were no lights, coach Leavitt ordered his assistants to shine their high beams onto the practice field at night.
ESPN arrived on campus Tuesday - three days before the game. Student tickets sold out at 6 p.m. Monday. Demand was so high, the regular allotment of 8,000 student tickets swelled to 12,501 on Monday - a Big East conference record.
"We're moving beyond the 'commuter school' reputation," Selmon said. "We are a major university."
But where does 'a major university' go from here? It is one of only a few Division I-A schools without a football stadium of its own.
The University of Central Florida opened a $54-million, 45,000-seat stadium two weeks ago. And last week, trustees at Florida Atlantic University - a Division I-AA school - approved a 30,000-seat stadium plan for its Boca Raton campus. USF, the country's 18th-ranked football team, rents.
Might the school's performance this year speed up plans for an on-campus stadium?
"It's on the radar screen," said Doug Woolard, USF's current athletic director. "I'm one of the persons that feel like, in the long-term interest of the university, it's an advantage to have 65,000 people on USF's campus six or seven times in the fall. At the same time, right now, we've got a great place to play. There is no other stadium that seats over 65,000 in this conference."
As for Rienzi, the USF junior who used to get the puzzled stares every time he told people about his school, he said these days the response goes something like this:
8 a.m.: Temple Terrace will install a banner in front of City Hall, 11250 N 56th St., in honor of the Bulls.
10 a.m.: Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, USF athletic director Doug Woolard and USF fans will hoist a banner on the side of the Tampa Municipal Office Building, 306 E Jackson St. Iorio designated today "Green and Gold Day."
6:30 p.m.: Rappers MIMS (This Is Why I'm Hot) and Shop Boyz (Party Like a Rock Star) will headline a concert outside Raymond James Stadium in parking lot No. 4, next to the stadium's student entrance.