The Ryan King: Heartbreakers
Admittedly, I’ve been pretty harsh on the Eagles in my last few columns. This isn’t caused by any hatred for our feathered Philadelphian franchise, or even by a growing frustration that they have the most talented team in the league and yet somehow have a losing record. Truth is, I have a much more frustrating team on my hands and really have no angst left to spare for the Birds by the time Sunday comes around. As I have heavily hinted in previous editions, this team is the University of South Florida Bulls.
You may currently be asking yourself “What is the University of South Florida?” or possibly “Does he mean Florida State?” or even “Why does a kid from Pennsylvania like a directional school from Florida?” to which I would answer “Wait until the next paragraph,” “No,” and “I’m really not sure,” respectively. But as promised, here’s a bit of background.
USF’s football program was started in 1997, which makes the Bulls significantly younger than me and, I assume, everyone reading this column. Despite starting out with literally no facilities, holding team meetings under a palm tree, and hiring a coach that looked suspiciously like Beaker, the team was ready to make the jump to Division I by 2001. By 2005, around the time I became interested in the Bulls, they had accepted an invitation to join the Big East.
Let’s put that into perspective. This program, only eight years old, had already risen up through the ranks quickly enough to join one of the most prestigious conferences in college football. Most of the credit probably goes to our resident Beaker look-alike (see left) Jim Leavitt, who despite a fiery temper had turned the team into a fledging superpower, equipped with a stingy defense and located in talent-rich Tampa. 2005 seemed to be the perfect year to jump on the USF hypetrain– so my sixth-grade self, driven by an unnatural love of underdogs that to this day I haven’t been able to shake, hopped aboard.
And underdogs they most certainly were. After efficiently disposing of crosstown rival Central Florida Knights, (who have and always will hate USF’s guts for nabbing the Big East bid and leaving them behind in a weaker conference), the Bulls faced their biggest test yet– ninth-ranked Louisville, who hadn’t lost in over a year.
USF won 45-14.
It was the first of many big wins to come for the Bulls. They stayed in the Big East title hunt until the end of the year and qualified for their first ever bowl game. The next year, armed with a highlight-reel, mohawk-toting freshman quarterback named Matt Grothe, USF would improve to 9-4 and even knocked off a ranked West Virginia squad that somehow had Pat White, Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt all in the same backfield. With Grothe back in 2007, the sky was the limit. Fans were hungry for the program’s first ever conference title.
Grothe and company didn’t disappoint. They scored the biggest win in program history when they traveled to Auburn and emerged with a 26-23 win and their first ever national ranking. A few weeks later, in the game that would come to be known as “The Night Tampa Became a College Football Town,” they downed fifth-ranked West Virginia once again and, at 6-0, were ranked second in the nation. USF, only ten years removed from the start of their football program, had taken the college football world by storm.
Now in eighth grade, I was loving every minute of it. I spent my homeroom periods thinking about the Bulls’ next game, or whether Grothe had a legitimate shot at the Heisman, or how Jim Leavitt would probably explode if he didn’t start taking anger management classes, or even, on a slow day, running up and down the two-deep in my head. Did it really matter if Amp Hill or Marcus Edwards got the nod as the fifth wide receiver? No, but it sure did to me.
Then things started to unravel a bit. The Bulls fell that Thursday night, 30-27 against a Ray Rice-led Rutgers team. Two consecutive losses followed, and just like that we were out of the Big East race.
Still, Bulls fans and myself remained optimistic. In 2008 Grothe was back for his junior year, and USF was not only ranked in the preseason for the first time, but was the consensus favorite to bring home the Big East title. There were other signs that the program was ready to enter the big time– we had begun to schedule games against Florida State, Florida, and Miami, the traditional Florida superpowers, and effectively ended our series with UCF, citing larger motivations. We had our first taste of the spotlight and were thirsty for more.
Once again, USF scored a big, last-second win against a ranked Kansas squad and moved all the way up to #10 in the nation. One seven-game conference schedule and another midseason swoon later, we were on the bottom looking up– sixth in the Big East and relegated to another mediocre bowl game.
Perhaps it was the high schooler in me coming out, but as I sat in my basement watching the final seconds of the Bulls’ regular season-ending loss to West Virginia, that same West Virginia team we had so triumphantly beaten a season ago, I couldn’t help but take a more cynical approach. The underdog story wasn’t cute anymore. For the second straight year, we were arguably the most talented team in the conference but failed to even come close to taking home the Big East title. Worse, we raced out to a hot start every single year only to collapse under the national spotlight. I believe USF fans had reached a consensus of sorts entering 2009, that 8 or 9 wins and a middle-of-the-road finish wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
2009 was different, yes, but none of us could really have anticipated how different it would be. One game before our first-ever matchup with big brother Florida State, Matt Grothe went down with a season-ending injury. If the Bulls were to beat Florida State, or finally bring home the Big East title, it would not be under the leadership of their senior captain. Grothe was the face of the program, yes, but his luster had dulled a little bit after the last two seasons’ second-half collapses. It wasn’t until USF–and myself– faced a life without Grothe, ever so prematurely, that we realized how much he meant to us. To this day, as he quarterbacks some unimpressive Arena Football League team, Matt Grothe remains arguably my favorite athlete, and I will always remember the middle school memories he gave me.
Replacing Grothe, the Big East career leader in total offense, was a totally different story. Making his first start against Florida State would be freshman B.J. Daniels, who had wideout-type speed but had never thrown more than a few passes in a college game before.
The Bulls won, 17-7.
The media was all over this one. USF had finally defeated one of the big boys, with a freshman quarterback making his first start to boot. Once again we were nationally ranked, and inexplicably started off 5-0 with a Big East title once again in our sights. Daniels, however, would prove to be even more inconsistent than his predecessor, and the Bulls limped to an 8-5 finish and played their bowl game somewhere in Canada.
Despite the bowl win, the offseason proved to be tumultuous for the Bulls. Leavitt, never one for controlling his emotions, was accused of striking a player somewhere in the midst of his annual midseason losing streak and was subsequently fired. Replacing Leavitt was a large, jolly man named Skip Holtz, whose pleasant demeanor was a welcome break from his predecessor’s… everything. Once again, at the University of South Florida, there was hope.
Hope, however, turned out to be scant in Holtz’s first season. Daniels struggled mightily adapting to new schemes, and the Bulls opened league play 0-2. it was an odd feeling–for once, we weren’t off to a fast start, and we weren’t even near the most talented team in conference. USF was bracing for their first losing season since before they joined the Big East.
And somehow, Holtz turned things around. A pleasant second half of the year resulted in an another eight-win season, but this felt different. For once, the Bulls had overachieved. For once, we had surpassed expectations instead of falling short of them. It should come as no surprise then, that Bulls fans were ready for the team to build on the season and reach the Big East title this year.
As I type this, the Bulls are halfway through that season, a season that opened with a legendary win against Notre Dame and a top fifteen national ranking. We now sit at 4-4, with a record low 0-4 mark in Big East play. Just as Leavitt did every year, Skip Holtz has now broken our hearts.
Could Holtz still salvage the season and finish with a decent record? Sure, but would anyone care? Year after year, USF has given its fans, given me something to get excited about and then promptly fallen on its face when the second half of the season comes around. A few tabs to my right is the box score from our latest overtime defeat against Rutgers, a game that the Bulls led by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Miami has declined to continue our series. UCF is expected to accept an invitation to join the Big East and begin playing us yearly again– a situation once thought to be apocalyptic, but given our struggles doesn’t really seem that bad anymore. How can the team possibly expect me to care when next season comes around? How can I get excited when the team scores a big win, knowing that the October letdown in imminent?
I guess this is the crux of being a fan, staying with your team through the heartbreak as well as the triumph. I know there are diehard LSU fans out there who get to celebrate a national championship every three of four years. But you know what? When the Bulls do break through in our Gatsby-esque quest for that Big East title– and I know we will– it’ll mean more than any of those championships, because they haven’t felt that heartbreak that we’ve felt in trying to get there. No matter how hard the team tries to give me a reason not to, I’ll still be there the next season, swearing that this is the year we finally get there.
As this column nears the 2000 word mark, I realize I should probably pack it in and get going on my Sunday. There’s an Eagles game on later, but I won’t be watching it– there’s an updated two-deep out there that needs memorization. It’s not like the battle for fifth receiver between Andre Davis and A.J. Love is going to resolve itself.