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Will success on field aid USF in classrooms?
Big-time football's benefits are still debatable.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 13, 2007
TAMPA - Not everyone tailgated in 1997 as the University of South Florida played its inaugural game at the old Houlihan's Stadium, taking that first sip of the intoxicating cocktail that is big-time college football.
Skeptics, including some faculty members, called USF's gridiron gambit foolhardy. One longtime professor scoffed that it would take decades to establish a team as good as the ones at Florida State University or the University of Florida. Another warned the sports hoopla would hurt the campus atmosphere.
But USF officials never strayed from their game plan. And they say that with the Bulls now ranked No. 5 and in the hunt for a national championship, the long-awaited buzz -- and all that comes with it - is within reach.
"If you love college football today, the place to be in Florida is at the University of South Florida," said Mark Greenberg, who wrote a 50th anniversary book about USF last year and directs the school's special collections department. "That's a great recruiting tool. I would be shocked if we didn't see an increase in applications next year."
No doubt, the din of USF's on-field success is getting louder, but it hasn't completely drowned out skeptics who question the benefits of college football to the university as a whole.
"If you want a pretty cold reality, look at the University of Michigan," said Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at the College of Holy Cross. "They jam that stadium every game with more than 100,000. That program barely breaks even."
While the two USF professors most outspoken against football in 1997 no longer teach there and couldn't be reached for comment, some current faculty members still are sober or indifferent.
"Football is great, but it's not the sum total of a college education," said Sherman Dorn, president of the faculty union chapter at USF. "Certainly, it's an exciting time. You'll find some faculty who say it's wonderful, some who don't care. And some will say, 'I hope we keep our priorities.'"
Football wasn't always a USF priority.
Its first president, John Allen, presided from 1957 to 1970 and branded the sport a detraction from academics. That view was shared by most in the USF community for some time.
"Football seems to be much more important to many more schools than was the case back then," said Cecil Mackey, who was USF's president from 1971 to 1976. "I didn't feel there was a significant group that wanted it. The faculty didn't want it. There was no organized student activity group pushing for football, as far as I know."
But after football transformed Florida State and the University of Miami into national brand names, USF named a president in 1988 who was the first to push for football. Everything followed that, Greenberg said.
"Starting in the 1980s, students saw education as a commodity," he said. "They're consumers now. They have choices. In this environment, football enhances the university's national reputation."
From his home in Michigan, where he now teaches at Michigan State, Mackey said he's been watching USF's progress with interest. He applauds the team's success, but he's not sure what it means beyond the field.
"The school will certainly get a lot of publicity," said Mackey, a former Michigan State president. "But what that translates to is up for debate."
Athletic success might cause a rise in student applications, he said, but it won't necessarily improve the quality of students applying. Any uptick in alumni giving tends mainly to benefitthe athletic department, not academics, he said.
"Football is expensive," he said. "If you're going to do it right, you need to know that. And the cost of not winning is very high."
Beware of publicity, too, said Holy Cross's Matheson. Off-field problems with players and law enforcement at the University of Miami still nag that school's reputation, he said.
"A huge number of people still think that place is a home of thugs," he said.
And costs can easily spiral out of control, he said, because athletic programs typically consume what they produce in revenue.
"Invariably, if your athletic program generates money, it's their incentive to spend it," he said. "Otherwise, it gets spent on the English department. As long as the program doesn't run at a loss, administrations are happy."
Dorn said that so far, he's confident USF president Judy Genshaft remains focused on research. She signaled as much in her recent state of the university address, which she opened with news of USF's $169-million diabetes research grant.
USF officials say they have no plans to build a stadium on campus, as UCF recently did.
Dorn said that's a good thing. He said the university's ongoing capital campaign, aimed at boosting USF's endowment, needs to improve academic areas -- not football.
"Building a stadium on campus when we have use of a professional stadium would just be foolish," he said. "We do not need to sink millions of dollars into a football stadium when we have so many other needs."
Staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.