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USF admirer isn't a secret anymore

ESPN commentator Lee Corso praises the football program's progress.

By PETE YOUNG
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 23, 2001


The South Florida bandwagon has a new passenger. You might have heard of him, and he might drown out the others.

He is Lee Corso.

The ubiquitous and opinionated ESPN college football commentator, who has become a spokesman for the sport in recent years thanks primarily to his oft-quirky role on the popular College GameDay show, has noticed the Bulls' performance this season. And he is raving about them.

"I've been following (USF), absolutely," Corso said of the Bulls, who are 7-3 entering Saturday's season finale against Utah State. "Anybody who's not impressed has to be crazy."

In just its first Division I-A season and fifth overall, USF earned praise from one of the sport's most recognizable national mouthpieces.

"It's tremendous what they've done in just their fifth year," said Corso, a former college and professional coach. "It shows that if you get the right people in the right place and give them the opportunity, then (quickly having a winning I-A program) can be done.

"(USF coach) Jim Leavitt, he was at Kansas State with (current Oklahoma coach) Bob Stoops, right? Those guys sure know how to get it done."

The Bulls' most significant victory this season was the 35-26 upset Sept.8 at Pittsburgh.

Corso said USF and quarterback Marquel Blackwell, who completed 37 passes for 343 yards and 4 touchdowns that day, inflicted so much damage the Panthers could not regroup for several games.

"I (covered) Pittsburgh a few weeks later against Miami, and let me tell you, they were dead," Corso said. "South Florida had taken the life out of them."

The Bulls have been criticized for not playing Central Florida, but not by Corso.

"That's their business. It's not my business. I'm sure they have good reasons," Corso said. "It's like asking, "Why hasn't a guy called up and asked a girl for a date?"' Corso lives in Orlando and frequently touts Central Florida during broadcasts.

He said, however, that USF's future conference affiliation, with Conference USA beginning in 2003, is much better than UCF's, the Mid-American Conference beginning next season. "I think joining Conference USA was a great move. They have good football teams," Corso said. "UCF in the MAC is a big, big, big mistake.

"It doesn't fit."

Next season, USF plays all 11 games against I-A opponents after having three against I-AA schools this season.

The game that stands out is Sept.28 at Oklahoma.

It is far and away the highest-profile game in Bulls history, and Corso said USF should have at least one like it every season. "At this point, they should schedule as many as they can get for two reasons," Corso said of playing powerhouse programs on the road.

"One, the money. And two, your friends don't see you get your butt beat."

The best news for the Bulls is the future. Only eight players from this season's team are expected to complete their eligibility.

Three other seniors, Ken "Shaq" Dawson, Hugh Smith and Emerson Morris, expect to earn another season by graduating this summer in four years.

Leavitt, the centerpiece of the program, said he is pleased with the Bulls' progress and happy people such as Corso have noticed. But he said the program has a long way to go, and all he is thinking about is Saturday's game against Utah State.

"We're just in a process right now, and we have so far to go. We haven't even joined the conference yet," Leavitt said. "There are a million firsts that go along with (joining) Conference USA. If we sat here for about an hour I could line up about 50 things that could be a first.

"This season, we had the first time we won on the road with me not wearing a visor (at Pittsburgh). I could list a million things."

At least one more "first" was accomplished this week: first effusive praise received from a nationally known commentator.

"What they've done is a blueprint for other people to follow," Corso said.

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