Far before the time of capacity, sellout crowds that seemingly transformed Raymond James Stadium into a sea of green and gold, is a forgotten time of sparse crowds in the early days of the USF Football program. The average night at Ray Jay would draw about 25k-35k fans in the stands, the low turnstile figures were commonplace despite strong nationally ranked programs traveling to Tampa.
The perfect example takes us back to 2005 when the 9th ranked Bobby Petrino led Louisville Cardinals collided with Jim Leavitt’s Bulls, and only managed to draw an underwhelming crowd of 33,586 out to Ray Jay, despite the Bulls’ 45-14 shellacking of the Cardinals in the marquee win. This victory sparked the creation of a notorious national reputation for Jim Leavitt’s young USF Football team: the upset squad.
The following season USF knocked off yet another top ten program, this time it was the 7th ranked West Virginia Mountaineers 24-19 on the road in Morgantown in front of a 52,790 crowd. To boot, a national audience soaked in USF’s momentous triumph on ESPN2. I must note, as a USF fan it was nothing shy of pure glory as an unheralded program fighting for national clout.
These two key wins became the pillars of an electric 2007 USF home atmosphere, which culminated in sellouts and capacity crowds the Bulls enjoyed for the next few seasons. It was THE tone setter, THE difference maker. The first game of the 2007 season drew an understandably lackluster 33,639 fans to Raymond James Stadium for FCS foe Elon, illustrating that USF’s attendance dilemma was still in full swing.
The Bulls needed a victory over a premier program to gain national respect, that came to fruition on September 8, 2007 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in front of a roaring 82,617 SEC road crowd. USF sealed the miraculous victory over the 17th ranked Auburn Tigers 26-23 in overtime via the famed Grothe to Hester touchdown that became program folklore known as ‘Auburned’.
Next, the Gro-Hawk led Bulls squared off against ACC incumbent North Carolina on a rainy day in Tampa, unsurprisingly South Florida’s fair weather fanbase mustered just 37,693 butts in the seats for the soggy 37-10 thrashing of the Tar Heels.
What came next was nothing short of majestic.
West Virginia 2007 will forever be etched in the minds of all Bulls faithful and became the other pillar of the unparalleled 2007 season. The sellout crowd of 67,018 literally pushed Ray Jay to capacity, becoming the largest college football crowd in program history for the showdown between No. 5 West Virginia and No. 18 USF. The borderline deafening atmosphere led to Rob Stone stating,
“This feels like Gainesville, it feels like Tallahassee, but it’s Tampa. I’ve lived here for the last 7 years, this is unprecedented. You rarely see green & gold out in the streets in Tampa, that has changed the last couple weeks.” ~ Rob Stone, ESPN Reporter
As we all know, USF was gloriously victorious and the massive post-game party that ensued literally on the field at Raymond James was epic. Jim Leavitt’s fantasy came to life before our very eyes. What a time to be Bull!
What USF needs to and has done better than any other non-P5 program is scheduling big time P5 opponents, which is a tremendous first step but in order to draw even near capacity crowds that aren’t covered in the oppositions colors with green & gold mixed in like sprinkles the Bulls must beat every big team they face. USF has an opportunity to put the national landscape on notice August 30th against No. 25 Wisconsin, if USF can pull off the upset over the Badgers and utilize the momentum to top BYU the Bulls will have a shot at returning to national prominence.
With the brilliant leadership of USF President of Athletics Michael Kelly and his complete attitude overhaul of the USF program, the Bulls have revived the mantra of its humble beginnings: an “anyone, anywhere, anytime” attitude. And folks, that is precisely what’s needed.
If USF can seize the opportunity and get these big wins, I fully anticipate a culture shift that will have fair weather South Florida fans reverting back into resilient Bulls faithful…better known as USF FANATICS! This is the name of the game, and the kryptonite is USF elevating to the task at hand. USF is headed in the right direction, now it is time to just win!
by David Gold, SoFloBulls.com Contributor