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American Athletic Conference needs USF-UCF rivalry to flourish

Christopher Fischer

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We have the full understanding that “War on I-4” will always belong to the Arena Football rivalry Tampa Bay Storm vs. (Now Defunct) Orlando Predators first. The name, a new trophy and a new rivalry has re-emerged with USF and UCF. And it’s one that the AAC needs to have succeed for the play on the field and the attention it will bring.

USF currently has “the hardware” after a blowout win in Orlando last year and Coach Willie Taggart was showing it off early in the week:

“It’s one of those game you can take the records out, it doesn’t matter,” said Taggart.

There will be more at stake than a piece of hardware hoisted by the victor. Recruiting, a potential trip to the conference championship game, a 10-win season, and bowl games will all be on the line.

“This is a natural rivalry, I think it’s good for both programs,” said UCF head coach Scott Frost. “I think there is a little extra motivation when your playing someone just down the road from you.”

It didn’t always used to be this way.

When the Bulls and Golden Knights were in different leagues earlier this century, USF had zero desire for this game. From former head coach Jim Leavitt to still current President Judy Genshafft, they felt no need to play UCF and legitimize them. This infuriated those associated with UCF, but you could understand and appreciate USF’s point. This is especially when Leavitt and the Bulls beat them four straight times head to head and then, would say “we have nothing to gain continuing to beat them/play them.” So, the series expired.

Obviously, Leavitt is long since gone as coach, and the Bulls and Knights are now in the same division in the same conference. So, the point is moot about playing/not playing.

Here’s the reality: It’s in both schools interest to develop a rival/game to point to every year, and it’s obviously in the American Conference’s favor, too. With programs spread literally from Connecticut to Dallas to Greenville, NC, to Tulsa and back to Central Florida, they NEED two teams this close to each other to be good and want to “get after it” in a rivalry game.

American Commissioner Mike Aresco has said he believes the AAC makes it a “Power 6” when it comes to major conferences. Let’s be honest, that’s just salesman talk and IF the AAC was taken so seriously, then how is it USF could win their tenth game and still be unranked? That wouldn’t indicate they beat quality opponents comprising your conference, Mr. Aresco.

That brings us to Saturday at noon at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. USF has had a spectacular offensive season and is a win from earning their best regular season ever at 10-2. UCF is back from a horrific 0-12 season and an upset of the Bulls makes them 7-5. That’s coaching, right there.

There are plenty of story-lines at play, but maybe, one of the biggest won’t actually be on the field, it will be in the stands.

USF Athletic Director Mark Harlan has noted that attendance has risen compared to last season. But will there be enough combination of black, green and gold so that the red Raymond James Stadium seats don’t appear on national televisions.

Only 16,585 showed up for USF HOMECOMING. One would think the seventh highest scoring offense in the country would intrigue Bulls fans to show up for a game. Maybe the allure of the rivalry will constitute a better turnout, because we all know a noon kickoff time doesn’t help the situation.

It’ll be Senior Day, and a chance for the USF senior class to go back-to-back over the Knights. Imagine when the Bulls’ senior class arrived on campus as freshman, USF stunk. That’s right I said it: Skip Holtz made them horrendous. Now they have a chance to climb in to the rankings, and with some help from ECU over Temple, play for in a conference championship game.

This game isn’t a battle of national heavyweights like Michigan and Ohio State will be Saturday, nor is it a showdown of sunshine state juggernaut’s like Florida and Florida State Saturday night. This rivalry is more like two little brothers pounding it out, and who doesn’t love a good sibling scrap?

The AAC is smiling, as they should be, at this match-up in the latest edition of the new “War on I-4.”

A game that everybody needs.

A native Floridian who graduated from Clearwater High School and the University of Florida, Chris Fischer has spent nearly 15 years in Sports Televison, including the last five as Sports Reporter and Anchor with the CBS affiliate in Tampa Bay-WTSP. He is a multi time AP Sports and Local Emmy award winner and will be seen this season as a sideline reporter on CBS-TV’s network coverage of the NFL.Chris brings enthusiasm and passion (particularly when it comes to his Gators) to College and NFL coverage to F.F.I.

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USF Bulls

USF introduced new AD Michael Kelly Friday

Florida Football Insiders

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In a return to a previous stop in his distinguished college athletics career, Michael Kelly was formally introduced as USF’s new Vice President of Athletics Friday.

Kelly, who has been the Chief Operating Officer of the College Football Playoff since 2012, was brought in to replace Mark Harlan, who departed on June 1st to be the new athletic director at Utah.

Kelly, who was previously an assistant AD at the school in 2001-02, takes over a program that has some pluses, not the least of which is a strong football program under coach Charlie Strong. It also has a women’s basketball program that is a perennial NCAA tournament team. The same with USF softball, and the last two years, the baseball team has also been in the NCAA postseason.

Men’s Basketball has largely been a mess for the last 20 plus years of play, including the firing of former coach Orlando Antigua during an NCAA investigation two years ago.

The bigger struggle is that USF is not a “Power Five” conference and suffers from the lack of significant revenue, because of it.

Kelly, who will be paid $625,000 annually plus incentives, did not shy away from USF having to battle that hurdle to compete:

“Obviously we’ve always had very aspirational goals at the University of South Florida. We’ve built a huge athletic department…Frankly, right now, we want to focus on being the very best that we can be. We are in a great league right now (the American Conference). How do we dominate that league? …That’s our goal right now. When we build the tradition, one champion at a time…we’ll be the best positioned school in the country if anything else happens (conference expansion).”

As we wrote previously, Kelly has previous experience as assistant commissioner of the ACC, handling football, broadcasting and communications. That means he understands how those leagues operate and succeed, intimately.

One of the first challenges will be to try to keep Strong from bolting, like Harlan did, for one of those bigger jobs in the short term. Strong is due to make over $5 million this season, but most of that money is still being paid by the University of Texas.

This has lead to widespread speculation that Strong might jump, especially, if USF has a successful year, in December to another school.

But, that’s in the future, in the present, Kelly’s task is to stabilize the entire department in Tampa, and through fundraising, specifically, do the best job he can in increasing revenue outside of what the American has in television, etc.

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USF Bulls

USF scores big AD hire with Michael Kelly of College Football Playoff

Florida Football Insiders

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The USF Bulls and their search firm vowed that they would not take long to replace departed athletic director Mark Harlan.

And on Tuesday, less than a month after Harlan left for the University of Utah, USF announced that they hired College Football playoff senior executive Michael Kelly, to return to Tampa to run the athletic department that he used to be part of.

The school announced the move here:

Kelly who’s been the COO of the College Football Playoff since it’s inception in 2012, was previously in Tampa as USF’s, associate athletic director for external affairs for two years (2001-02).

Previously to working for the CFP, Kelly had spent six years with the Atlantic Coast Conference, as a senior associate commissioner overseeing football, broadcasting and communications.

USF included these comments from him in the release:

“I am truly honored to return to the University of South Florida and Tampa Bay. This is a dream opportunity for me, and I couldn’t be more grateful to President Genshaft and the USF Board of Trustees,” Kelly said. “It’s a very exciting time with the university and the entire region on such strong upward trajectories. I can’t wait to get started with our student-athletes, coaches, staff, Bulls fans, donors and alumni everywhere.”

Kelly also, has an extensive background and history with Tampa Bay and big events, as he was the executive director of the 1999 Men’s Final Four organizing committee for the event that was held at Tropicana Field in St Petersburg.

His excellent work with that led him to be the president of the Super Bowl host Committee in Tampa Bay for Super Bowl 35 (2001) and later have that same role in Jacksonville for Super Bowl 39 and in Miami for Super Bowl 41.

The Bulls currently reside in the American Athletic Conference, which is a compilation of leftover teams from the old Big East and some added teams from Conference USA. However, that League has nowhere near the revenue as the “Power 5” conferences, and it will be a challenge for Kelly, just like it is for the other schools, to raise money and try to level the playing field.

USF has to consider this a “home run hire” to replace Harlan, as Kelly brings tremendous credibility from college football’s most important post-season brand. And, because of Kelly’s relationship at the network TV level from his days with the CFP and also with the ACC, it will benefit the American Athletic Conference to have him now in the fold as well.

The Bulls will introduce Kelly at a news conference later this week.

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USF Bulls

Former Bucs Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks won’t be new USF AD

Florida Football Insiders

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

USF search for a new athletic director continues, another prominent name that had been speculating about has decided that he won’t be in it. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks released a statement on Friday to officially rule himself out for replacing former AD Mark Harlan. Harlan left three weeks ago Friday to take the same position with the University of Utah.

Brook’s statement came Friday through the high school that he co-founded in Tampa with former 49ers owner Eddie Debartolo.

“As flattered as I am to be publicly mentioned for the Director of Athletics position at the
University of South Florida, I do not believe the timing is right for me to pursue any new
opportunities. Commitments with Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School, Derrick
Brooks Charities and, most importantly, my family, would not enable me to fully devote
the time that would be required to successfully engage in this role at USF.

Brooks continued,

“I see nothing but a great future for USF Athletics and I know that the advisory
committee and President Genshaft will have excellent candidates to choose from in
selecting the new leader.

Because of Brooks’s previous experience on the Florida State University board of directors and having been the president and general manager of the now-defunct Tampa Bay Storm Arena Football team, many think Brooks would have been an ideal choice for the Bulls.

However, his work not only with his charitable foundation and the Brooks-Debartolo Collegiate High School has been very successful for over a decade in the Tampa area.

We wrote previously that Brooks should be one of the names that USF president Dr. Judy Genshaft, Dr. Bob Sutton from the University, who is heading up to search, and the search firm, Eastman & Beaudine should take a strong look at.

One source told F.F.I. that it was a very tough obstacle for a lot of USF alumni and donors that Brooks was so heavily associated with Florida State. However, he is a tremendous figure over the last 23 years in the Tampa Bay area.

Brooks, who’s now 45, was a former All-American linebacker national champion with the Seminoles from the early 1990s. He later became a first-round pick with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995 and helped lead them to a Super Bowl championship in 2002

Earlier, Tampa Sports executive Rob Higgins, who heads up the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, had also announced that he was going to assist the search but was not a candidate for the job. His organization has been responsible for Super Bowls, the College Football Playoff Championship Game, the recent NHL All-Star Game and other prominent sports events coming to the Tampa Bay Area.

USF is in need of an impressive hire to help not only with fundraising but another last-ditch opportunity to get them into a bigger conference than the current American Athletic Conference, where they currently reside.

The Bulls make a fraction of what the other “Power Five” conferences make in terms of revenue, including from television rights. It’s one of the big reasons Harlan took the Utah job in the pac-12 where their revenue is more than five times that of the Bulls.

USF will likely interview at least two-three out of market candidates during the search.

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