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U$F

The Bulls began playing football in 1997 with the goal of completing a $7-million athletic complex this year. But as frustrated coaches and players continue using trailers and several buildings for their needs, rising costs leave the school needing $10-million in private donations to complete the project.

An artist's rendering of a multipurpose athletic complex that would take about two years to complete.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


TAMPA -- It's 6:30 on a fall evening and South Florida football coach Jim Leavitt has just ended practice.

The players jog off the field, a Leavitt requirement. Once outside the practice gates, those with vehicles become the most popular guys in the area and players jam inside cars or on the back of trucks to ride back to the Sun Dome for a quick shower.

Leavitt and his assistants begin the long walk to the trailers that serve as their offices.

While players at many Division I-A schools have athletic complexes with top-notch amenities, the Bulls are struggling to make do with several buildings that shelter their various needs.

"The fact that I came in our inaugural year (1997) and teased about the trailers and five years later we're still in them, I wouldn't say it's frustrating, but it's a major concern," said Leavitt, whose office is located in one of several trailers next to the baseball field.

"It's something we've got to get established. The relationship with players and coaches is crucial. But we have housing in one spot, dining in another, lockers in another, meeting rooms in another, practice in another. It's so hard to see those kids. They come in and look for you and they don't see you because everything's not in one place. It really hurts the communication and relationship between players and coaches."

South Florida's three-tiered grand vision -- originating in 1997 with the start of a football program that would move from Division I-AA to I-A faster than any other, and culminating with the building of a 60,000-square-foot athletic complex -- has hit a major roadblock.

The planned multipurpose building remains a concept in a frame on a wall.

"I think we've always realized when the football coaches were going in the trailers that this was not the permanent home we want our coaches to work out of," said co-acting USF athletic director Lee Roy Selmon. "This is something we've recognized the need for, but in the beginning we needed to get the team going -- one step at a time. Now that the program has grown the past four years and we're about to embark as a I-A independent, it becomes very glaring that now is the time we need to improve the facilities side of the program."

Nobody is questioning the need. The ability to get it done is another story.

* * *

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Coach Jim Leavitt imagines what other schools tell recruits about USF: "They've gone a great job, especially with those trailers they have for their coaches."

In 1997, South Florida athletic officials said they hoped to occupy the building by 2001 at a cost of approximately $7-million. Now, Selmon said, USF officials would like to have the building completed by 2003.

But with structural changes and inflation, the cost is now approximately $12-million, of which $2-million has been raised. With the exception of a small amount of money generated by a $10 per semester student fee for maintenance and renovation of athletic facilities, the majority of the remaining $10-million needed must come from private donations.

With an estimated construction time of 18 months to two years, groundbreaking needs to come real soon, Selmon said. But not a brick will be laid without the money.

"The thing is, if the resources aren't there, we won't build it," Selmon said. "The university has to feel comfortable that we have the means and resources to complete the project."

When South Florida officials began discussing the addition of football in 1992, they chose to start the program first, then worry about facilities later.

A steering committee determined it would need a $5-million endowment fund to start up the program. The university received major donations from many contributors -- 43 of whom donated $50,000 or more. The interest from those early donations was to go toward funding scholarships and other football expenses, while the principal remains untouched.

Has the well run dry?

* * *

Although Selmon acknowledges that South Florida doesn't have an alumni base that spans generations like many other established schools, he said that doesn't mean the Bulls can't go back to those who already have given generously.

"It's hasn't been difficult to go back to those (original) donors for help because we're going back with good news," Selmon said. " ... We've been received very well and a lot of those people we are asking are already involved with the university and have been graciously listening to what our needs are, so it has not been a problem going back to some of the ones that have already invested with us."

Currently, 100 football players and a total of 400 USF athletes share a 2,500-square-foot space in the Sun Dome for weight training. In the new facility, that area would increase to 8,000 square feet. The athletic complex also would provide space for an academic enrichment center, sports medicine, locker rooms for football, tennis, track, softball and soccer, coaches offices and equipment storage. A sports Hall of Fame, recognizing the accomplishments of past USF athletes, also would be included.

Without the money, there will be no facility. And without the facility, the coaches and Selmon said, there is no chance to compete with other football powerhouses on an even playing field.

"When you look at leveling the recruiting field -- there are players that our coaches have done a great job to get them to the campus and to seriously consider us -- and these are players who are also looking at Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Florida State," Selmon said. "Those schools have these type facilities. So we know it puts us at a disadvantage right away. And believe me those other competitors will point that out. They don't leave anything unturned. It's not just football, it's recruiting for all our sports."

Added Leavitt: "When people are getting recruited by various programs around the country, you can only imagine the lines others (opponents) are using. Can't you just hear it: "I like it here, but I'm also thinking about USF.' "Oh, yeah kid, I don't blame you. They've done a great job, especially with those trailers they have for their coaches. Did they ever get that facility built yet?' The subtleties can crush you.

"People say $12-million, that's a lot of money. But it's a drop in the bucket compared to what a lot of I-A programs spend."

And spend, they are. While South Florida searches for ways to improve on its fundraising efforts, schools across the state are doing the same -- and finding success.

The University of Central Florida is in the midst of $5.7-million in renovations to its football field house, with football offices comprising a major part of the project. Florida Tech, a Division II school in Melbourne, recently completed a $6.8-million sports and recreation center. Florida is adding a $50-million expansion to Florida Field and a $10-million practice facility. Florida State is constructing an $8.5-million practice facility and doing $9-million in renovations to its baseball stadium.

And Florida Atlantic, which will begin playing football this fall, recently completed construction of its 60,000-square-foot, two-story athletic facility -- within three years of beginning its fundraising effort.

* * *

Ironically, it was South Florida's direction that inspired Florida Atlantic football coach Howard Schnellenberger, who visited USF and met with athletic department officials for two days to help define a strategy for his building plans.

photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
USF co-acting athletic director Lee Roy Selmon.
Schnellenberger said he understands why South Florida put all its resources into starting its program before trying to build an athletic complex, but FAU officials decided otherwise.

"They (USF) felt that with trying to go to Division I-A in four years, making temporary space available for the time being was the best thing for them," Schnellenberger said. "We felt it would be better if we could go back to phase one and start from there -- to get the facility up and running first would give us a head start."

FAU fundraisers convinced 102 people to pledge $3-million (by donating $50,000 or more), then Tom Oxley, a businessman and 1966 FAU graduate, contributed $4-million and got his name on the building.

"It does help if you have someone who can make a large contribution," Schnellenberger said.

That's what Selmon is hoping for.

"We are in contact with several citizens in the community for lead-types of gifts, looking at probably $500,000 or $1-million," Selmon said. "These types of things require a lot of personal conversations, a lot of personal cultivation. Those are large gifts, but when I look around the country, that's how it gets done. We will do some of the grass-roots efforts as well, because we want everybody to be involved, but generally, the quickest way and the successful way is you have to have a number of those lead types of gifts. It gives it a serious outlook and it makes it reachable."

How quickly that goal can be achieved for South Florida remains to be seen.

"I'm highly optimistic," Selmon said. "It doesn't exist right now, but it's going to be a new structure that I think will be a signature of USF athletics in the future. It will be featured a while. It's something I know that all of us will take great pride in. It will benefit athletics and the university as a whole, and it's going to have a lot of natural exposure associated with that for years."

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