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Monday, Nov 24, 2014
Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: New AD needs to make USF matter

Published:   |   Updated: January 19, 2014 at 10:28 AM

TAMPA — Usually, replacing the largest local university’s athletic director is big news.

South Florida can’t even get its story straight.

It was announced Thursday that USF athletic director Doug Woolard will retire.

In June. In 2015.

Really, Woolard is pretty much already out, any real power gone, after nearly 10 years. To me, he was always a nicer man than a great athletic director. The search begins for his replacement.

USF’s next AD should have one mission:

Make people stop saying, “Oh, it’s USF, who cares?”

Make the place matter.

Start by making it matter in Tampa Bay.

Right now, the USF brand doesn’t mean a thing in this town. It doesn’t matter despite bigger budgets or better facilities. It doesn’t matter because USF football doesn’t matter, and that’s what matters. And USF doesn’t matter when it comes to conference realignment. That ship has sailed. Doug Woolard was among those on shore, waving a flashlight.

Here’s all you need to know:

On New Year’s Day, while Woolard attended a “news conference” to honor Rocky the Bull, USF’s mascot, for winning some sort of national mascot challenge, based on online voting, the University of Central Florida football team was preparing to beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

Sigh.

Woolard was paid beyond well to make USF athletics matter.

He never quite took that bull by the horns.

USF doesn’t matter.

But it can and it should, even in a town with three pro sports teams.

I remember 60,000 people at Raymond James Stadium one night to see the Bulls play football against West Virginia ... in a town with three pro sports teams.

In fairness, that big night on national TV was on Woolard’s watch, too. But it’s a far cry from the apathy represented in dwindling attendance.

USF drifted into irrelevance because USF football fell apart, a long, dark plunge.

Jim Leavitt, USF’s first football coach, became a 400-pound gorilla who did himself in. Woolard’s hiring of Skip Holtz, welcomed at first, turned disastrous, and was compounded after Woolard rewarded Holtz with a five-year contract extension — after a 5-7 season. Football went 2-10 in Willie Taggart’s first year.

Basketball matters less than football, but Woolard’s men’s basketball hire, Stan Heath, has lost more than he has won in seven seasons. The Bulls made the NCAA tournament two years ago, but haven’t built off it.

And there is all the yawning ...

Oh, it’s USF, who cares?

It’s about time someone got tired of that line.

USF needs a fresh face, a forceful leader who will push the envelope.

There are even some in USF’s neighborhood. Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, a USF alum, comes to mind. Maybe a guy who helped get the national college football championship in Tampa might get people to USF games.

Or maybe someone like highly successful Bulls softball coach Ken Erickson, another alum, a local, USF in his marrow.

Or bring someone in from the outside, someone with vision and energy, and grow from there.

Stop worrying about a national brand. Get real. Focus on winning this town over.

It’s time for a fresh start. It’s time to make USF athletics matter.

Today Tampa Bay, tomorrow the ...

Hey, just start with Tampa Bay.

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