When you're on vacation in Cape Cod at the end of September, it's a challenge to get the locals to talk about anything besides the Red Sox or Patriots. But there I was, in a Wellfleet pub on the same weekend that the Red Sox clinched the AL East title, trying to explain to the salty dogs around me just how insane it was that the Bulls were undefeated. No, not the Chicago Bulls. The USF Bulls! No, not the University of San Francisco! The University of South Florida, dude! Which, for some reason, is located in west-central Florida, in Tampa …
Look, enough explaining. I pointed at the TV, because my alma mater's football team, which didn't exist when I went to school there, had just beaten No. 5 West Virginia.
"Do you have any idea what this means?" I asked. I got a few vacant stares and half shrugs.
It's hard to blame those confused Red Sox fans—I haven't figured out what's going on, either. The weeks since that win over West Virginia have been even trippier. The Bulls jumped to No. 6 in the rankings, then to No. 5. Now, thanks to a weekend of upsets coupled with USF's 64-12 romp over UCF (that's the University of Central Florida), the Bulls are ranked No. 2 in the season's first BCS rankings. If the season ended today, the University of South Florida would be playing for the national championship. Do you have any idea what this means?
I graduated from the University of South Florida in 1991. Those were the days when USF was a 35,000-student commuter school without a football team or a cow chip of an identity. It was like an overpopulated community college (granted, with Ph.D. candidates) on a sprawling, 1970s-styled campus of yellow-brick buildings. I played for the baseball team, and though we were often ranked in the top 20 and regularly sought funds for a modest new stadium, the school never cared to give it to us.
As an institution with brand-name power and sports-team credibility, USF was, in short, lame. It was where an average Tampa kid went because he didn't get into the University of Florida or Florida State or anywhere else. If I mentioned to my pals from UF or FSU that South Florida should get a football team, I was inviting them to do their school cheer—the Gator Chomp, the Tomahawk Chop—right in my face. And I had to sit there and take it. After all, the Bulls didn't have any kind of cheer.
Ten years ago, USF finally got football. They signed Lee Roy Selmon, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first Hall of Famer, to drum up support in the community. They hired a gravelly voiced, gruff-looking coach, Jim Leavitt. They were on to good things. Good for them, I thought. At least USF students can go to football games, even if they are Division III-B or whatever.
I would have been naive to get excited. They wouldn't start playing in Division I-A until 2001. And once they did play in Division I-A, they'd surely get pummeled.
It turns out that USF was like that very unimpressive classmate, the one who surprises everyone at the reunion with news that he's a millionaire with a supermodel wife. An early hint of this came in 2005 when USF hit the ESPN radar by beating a highly ranked Louisville team. Even an alumnus could write that off as lucky. But a mere two years later, here's South Florida, ranked behind only storied Ohio State University. Perhaps even more amazing, they are now clearly the best team in the state, the best team in a region that treats college football like Saturday church.
This is a bit awkward for a detached alumnus like me, one of tens of thousands of South Florida graduates who left the school and never looked back. (Sure, I visit the campus every couple of years and notice the stylish new research centers and fraternity houses, but I'm not what the alumni office would call a "donor.") The team's fast rise means I've had to play fair-weather-fan catch-up. Admittedly, I still haven't seen more than a quarter of a Bulls' game. But I'm learning. It's College Football Fan 101: How to cheer for your own team.
I'm teaching myself to obsess about how we—we!—almost blew that game against Florida Atlantic after our big win over West Virginia. And hey, why all the haters? It truly irks me that Jimmy Johnson and several other sports announcers are saying that USF shouldn't be ranked above USC and all those other one-loss teams. The other day, I heard myself yelling at the TV screen: "Hey, USF is undefeated! Undefeated!"
It's like this: I want respect, for once. I want a Gator alum to smarmily ask me where I went to college. And when I tell him, I want to see the dark look that passes over his face, the orange-and-blue smugness wiped away by the undeniable truth: My football team is ranked higher than his.
I think this is called "school pride." It will be on full display Thursday night, when the Bulls take on Rutgers on ESPN.
As the game approaches, I'm searching for outlets for my newfound school spirit. The other day, I was driving through my Atlanta neighborhood when I saw a guy mowing his lawn. He had on a USF shirt. I had never seen this before. Sensing a potential bonding moment with another hard-core fan, I wheeled the car over to the side of the road. The guy stopped mowing.
I shouted, "Hey, you went to USF?"
"What?" he said.
"USF! You went there! I did too!" I was pointing at his shirt.
"Oh, no, my brother went there or something," he said.
"Oh!" I said. I was still excited, because I was only one person removed from someone who went to USF (or something) and had a shirt to prove it.
"They're doing pretty good!" I added. The guy nodded and went back to his mowing.
I wanted to grab him by the collars of that shirt. I wanted to shake him. I wanted to look him in the eyes and say, Do you have any idea what this means?