Every school has a rival. Some rivalries are fun. Others are weird. All are intense.
Sure, there was a time when this was a real rivalry. The two schools have traded blows for years in multiple sports going back to the 1970s. The hatred was palpable and went beyond sports. But in the years since UCF and South Florida began playing each other in football, what once looked like the next great Florida football rivalry has, well, fizzled, even as UCF has entered the national mainstream as a brand program.
The reason for that is clear:
No program in major college sports has blown it more than the University of South Florida.
It wasn’t always like this.
When UCF and South Florida began a four-game non-conference series in 2005, the Knights thought this was their opportunity to pull their western rival back down to earth after their meteoric rise from Division I-AA expansion program to Big East power player. And let’s be honest, the Bulls did everything to stiff-arm UCF into major football irrelevance over that period, leapfrogging UCF in the college football conference pecking order (due in part to their own resourcefulness and UCF’s mismanagement) and winning all four games.
But something in the ether flipped this rivalry from one-sided in favor of South Florida to absurdly one-sided to the point of self-parody in favor of UCF.
It all started on October 14, 2007.
That Sunday, South Florida’s program was riding higher than ever. They were ranked #2 in the first BCS poll of the 2007 season, behind only Ohio State, and they were coming off a 64-12 absolute drubbing of UCF in Tampa. It was a full-scale onslaught that we need not recount further.
We begin our list, which is in no way intended to be comprehensive, here, with South Florida’s self-proclaimed most significant football achievement:
1. Reached #2 in the country, and then took a massive #2.
Just like that, it was over for the Bulls. Two more losses (one of which to UConn) and 22 days later, they were out of the top 25 entirely. They would climb back to #23 by season’s end only to finish with a loss in the Sun Bowl to Oregon - their fourth in their final seven games after being ranked #2.
South Florida is still the only program to be ranked as high as #2 at any point in a season and finish unranked.
Of course, that didn’t prevent their fans and local media from engaging in Hall-of-Fame-level hubris, like this gem from the following year after the Bulls squeaked by UCF in overtime:
If you were a UCF fan during the dark days of south florida in the BIG EAST, you'll know how big it is to get the series back even this Friday in Tampa.— UCF Sports Info (@UCFSportsInfo) November 23, 2020
Buy a ticket and go watch UCF crush the bulls!!!
Never forget your rival's arrogance, this is a MUST READ for EVERY UCF fan: pic.twitter.com/Etlesm2TH7
Paging @OldTakesExposed. Back to the downfall:
2. That time USF President Judy Genshaft ended up killing the Big East
Back in 2012, Brett McMurphy, then of CBS Sports, reported that the Big East received an attractive media deal offer from ESPN of $1.4 billion over nine years (remember this number), but it required UCF joining the conference as the tenth team along with TCU. In his report:
“At that point when the Big East was intact, the only school the Big East could have legitimately added that made sense was UCF,” an industry source said. “Maryland and Boston College? They wouldn’t even return the Big East’s calls. But the Big East couldn’t add UCF because [South Florida president] Judy Genshaft kept shooting down UCF.”
Genshaft’s continuing insistence to block UCF from the league was a huge contributing factor which ultimately led to the league’s current instability, a league source said.”
Incompetence comes in many forms. Sometimes it comes in a form you can see from miles away.
3. Was in the Big East, is not anymore
Predictably, after the Big East turned down the aforementioned media deal, that touched off a cascade of fail that led to its eventual demise:
- Pittsburgh and Syracuse defect to the Atlantic Coast Conference
- The Big East invites UCF, Memphis, Houston, SMU, Boise State, and San Diego State
- Rutgers gets invited to join the Big Ten
- Notre Dame leaves for the ACC
- Louisville gets invited to join the ACC
- The Big East invites Tulane and East Carolina
- The Catholic Seven break off and eventually buy the Big East name on their way out.
- Boise State backs out joining the Big East
- San Diego State backs out joining the Big East
- Navy joins the Big East
- The Big East invites Tulsa
- The Big East sells its name and the basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden to the Catholic Seven, and The American Athletic Conference is born.
- The AAC ended up with a media deal worth $126 million over seven years. Winning.
4. Jim Leavitt gets fired for lying about getting a subordinate to lie to investigators about assaulting players
Ol’ Jimmy had it made. The Bulls’ first coach saw them through from the beginning of the program to that night in Piscataway.
And then in 2009, he slapped a player twice during a game, lied about it when he was questioned by the university, and then directed one of his staffers to lie about it when the university questioned him.
He was fired and replaced with...
5. The Skip Holtz Era
It’s funny. Skip Holtz had success at East Carolina, where he took the Pirates to four consecutive bowl games from 2006-2009, including two conference championships, before being hired by South Florida.
The Bulls made a bowl game in 2010 and then got worse each of the following two season before Holtz was fired. Skip was hired by Louisiana Tech and has won three C-USA West division titles and six consecutive bowl games from 2014 to today.
Maybe it wasn’t him though.
6. The Charlie Strong Era
You could hear all the hosannas about Charlie Strong returning to the Sunshine State, where he made his hay as a defensive coordinator for the Gators, after his disastrous tenure at Texas. Surely Charlie would pick up right from where serial buyout collector Willie Taggart left off, right?
Charlie Strong looks like his name is Charlie Strong. pic.twitter.com/gCfudbBUmA— What He Looks Like (@WhatHeLooksLike) October 11, 2016
Certainly looked good after a 10-2 campaign in 2017 (more on that later). Then, for some reason, Charlie forgot how to recruit Florida.
7-6, 4-8, and fired. But wait, there’s more.
7. “I was never ashamed of being an alum until now.”
Those were the words of Judge Margaret Taylor, presiding over the sexual battery case of one of two former South Florida players in 2017.
Judge Taylor continued:
“Let’s just say that my USF diploma is not proudly hanging in my office right now.
“And, I have a message for your coach, as well. coach Strong, if you are listening, in the last couple of months there have been two arrests of your players for very violent felonies. This court, and I’m sure I’m not alone, questions whether you have control over your players. It’s fairly clear you do not have control of them off the field, and I guess only time will tell whether you have control over them on the field.
“I would implore you to think long and hard about whether being head coach at USF is a good fit for you before any other members of this community have to suffer at the hands of one of your players.”
Even the law has had it with South Florida.
8. Got BCS?
South Florida fans used this line as smack talk towards UCF fans since the Bulls joined the Big East in 2005. From 2005-2012, the Bulls were part of a BCS conference while UCF was in Conference USA. When UCF joined the Big East, later renamed the AAC, there was one season left of the BCS before being replaced by the CFP, so the conference had one more season as an automatic qualifier.
What did UCF do with their one year as a BCS team in 2013? Oh, they just went undefeated in the conference and clocked Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.
Since 2013, UCF has been to two more New Year’s Six bowls as the Group of Five representative. South Florida had nine years as a BCS team and nothing to show for it.
9. Not even the bowls know who they are.
After the Bulls’ best season ever in 2017, they were rewarded with a trip to Birmingham. The Birmingham Bowl was so thrilled to have them that they got their name wrong on the official t-shirt:
10. The Big 12 Pitch Debacle
When you have to impress a bunch of academics, it pays to always do a little “reasearch” not to mention some proofreading:
11. No On-campus Stadium
2020: USF does not have an on-campus stadium.
12. No Indoor Practice Facility
“Ground-breaking on the Bulls’ indoor practice facility (IPF) will be done before the year ends. Mark it down in Sharpie. Or stone. It’s gonna happen,” wrote Bulls beatwriter Joey Knight in the Tampa Bay Times on February 20, 2018. The athletic director was on board, the president was on board, it was HAPPENING.
It hasn’t happened.
South Florida has been searching under every couch from here to Destin looking for every penny it can to get the one facility upgrade that really did help launch UCF’s program more than anything else. So far, they’ve unearthed a little more than half of the reported $40 million it would take to break ground in time for 2020. Welp.
Meanwhile, UCF has had an indoor facility since 2004, bought and paid for with private donations, at a cost of $4.3 million.
“College football is a game of haves and have-nots. And in this era it’s an arms race for better facilities.
“In the War on I-4, UCF has better facilities, which makes them a have. Without an on-campus stadium and perhaps more importantly, an indoor practice facility, USF is a have not.”
Speaking of having not:
13. No conference titles
USF is located in Tampa, a hotbed for high school football recruiting. The talent is right there in their own backyard. Surely that should help lead them to sustained success, right?
Nope. Not a single conference title. None in Conference USA, none in the Big East, and none in The American. They couldn't even win a division title in the few years of availability.
But Rocky the Bull did win that mascot championship once, so there’s that:
14. No fans in the stadium
Since The American was formed, USF has never averaged more than 38,517 fans per game in Raymond James Stadium for a whole season - a capacity of 58% in the 65,890-seat stadium.
But something about that seems amiss because more often than not, South Florida games have made the @EmptySeatsPics Twitter account, and that’s not something to be proud of, especially when it’s Senior Night for your best team in school history:
15. No fans at their own bowl game.
In 2018, following a mediocre 7-6 campaign, the Bulls were rewarded with a berth in the Gasparilla Bowl, hosted in their own home stadium. Hey, not a bad way to end a tough season than to get a win in front of the hometown fans against a Conference USA team, right? At least they’ll pack the place.
A paltry 14,135 fans watched the hapless Bulls get overwhelmed by Marshall on their home field, 38-20. It’s still a record for the lowest attendance in Gasparilla Bowl history.
16. They kicked to Mike Hughes in a tied game with a minute left.
The name Mike Hughes will haunt the Bulls faithful for years to come.
In 2017, undefeated UCF hosted one-loss South Florida on Black Friday. The winner would take home the East Division of the AAC, and in the conference championship game with a New Year’s Six bowl game on the line.
After coming back to tie the game at 42 late in the fourth quarter in back of the greatest single-game individual performance by a Bulls player in their history (605 total yards by QB Quinton Flowers), with a minute left on the clock, the Bulls inexplicably kicked the ball off to Hughes, and you know what happened after that:
UCF ended up winning the AAC championship and the Peach Bowl en route to a share of the national championship.
17. Can’t score at home
Quick: Who was the first team to shut out South Florida at home?
Yup, you guessed it.
UCF will always be in the record books as the first team to shut the Bulls out in Tampa, back in 2014. To add insult to injury, the argument could be made that there were more Knights fans at the game than Bulls fans. And again, it was in Tampa:
18. The Merrill Lynch logo
This was supposed to be Judy Genshaft’s going away present. It ended up being a case study in copyright infringement and gift for everyone except the school.
The logo was hideous and became a national punchline. After spending a million dollars designing a logo that looked like a Merrill Lynch ripoff and all new material (flags, banners, letterhead, etc) promoting it, school administrators spiked it within days. Bulls fans and alums celebrated as their school burned another cowpie of cash.
19. The uniforms
While UCF has been owning the college football fashion landscape since 2016, Under Armour tortured vision with monstrosities like this.
Looks like a sentient can of knock-off Mountain Dew.
Thankfully, South Florida moved to Adidas in 2018, but we still got this thing:
Stop trying to make neon green happen, USF. It’s never going to happen.
Speaking of terrible marketing, 2019-2020 was the year things were finally going to turn around. New athletic director Michael Kelly brought a fresh new perspective that was finally going to bring USF back to relative par with UCF.
Unfortunately, the marketing team didn’t get the memo, coming up with one of the most unintentionally hilarious hashtags in modern sports marketing history:
Continuing on the theme of bad marketing ideas:
21. The Bus
When Willie Taggart came to town in 2013, South Florida thought this astoundingly poorly-produced video was a good idea:
That sound you hear is the unintentional comedy meter on the verge of exploding.
There should be a section in marketing textbooks devoted entirely to this program’s failures. Give them credit for trying, though.
22. Hired a basketball coach who didn’t graduate from college
Discussion of South Florida’s ineptitude is not confined to football.
The Big East, of course, was renowned for basketball. So you’d think South Florida could pull in some serious coaching talent when you’re playing the likes of Syracuse, Villanova, and Georgetown, right?
Nope. After Stan Heath was fired as men’s basketball coach, the Bulls looked for a new coach. Their search led to Manhattan College head coach Steve Masiello. A five year, $5 million deal was already signed when a background check found that Masiello claimed he graduated from the University of Kentucky when he did not. South Florida then killed the deal. Masiello finished his degree shortly after the deal was nixed.
23. Can’t even cheat right.
This led the Bulls on a new coaching search, which led to the Orlando Antigua experiment.
This goes down as arguably the worst hire in Bulls athletics history, which is really saying something. Antigua amassed a whopping 23-55 record (7-30 in the AAC) before being fired over an academic fraud scandal involving his brother Oliver.
You’d think they’d get some wins if they went through the trouble of committing academic fraud, but they can’t even do that right.
24. Agrees to rivalry trophy, promptly gets crushed
In 2016, South Florida reluctantly agreed to formalize the War on I-4 rivalry with a pair of trophies - One for football, and the other for all sports.
Since then, South Florida has won one of those trophies just once, after the football game in 2016.
Bulls fans like to tout their school’s alleged head-to-head dominance over UCF across all sports, but the fact is that since the two schools have been on an equal footing, UCF has trounced USF across all sports, with a 72-55-4 record against the Bulls since joining The American. The War on I-4 All-Sports Trophy has never resided anywhere outside of Orlando.
But, ladies and gentlemen, the greatest fail the University of South Florida has ever pulled off goes back long before all of this. And it’s the most fundamental thing a university has for itself: Its name.
25. Calling itself South Florida when it’s not in South Florida
Folks, several of us on staff here are from South Florida. We know South Florida. We will say this one last time:
Even if you charitably define the boundaries of the region as extending from, say, Jupiter south to the Keys, this is obviously nowhere near where the school is located.
This is the branding fail to end all branding fails, and the biggest part about it is it cannot be fixed. Like a brand on a cow, they’re stuck being wrong forever.
Fear not, Bulls fans, for it could have been worse. They could have been called Citrus State University, Florida Peninsula University, Sunshine State University, or our personal favorite, Temple Terrace University.
So in conclusion, from the peak of their football success in 2007, it has been a long, winding, horrid path of failure for the South Florida Bulls football program.
Since that fateful fall week, South Florida has gone from a BCS contender to a nobody, through five coaches, scandals in football and basketball, and no on-campus home, and watched as their own president blew up their money printing machine of a conference because she couldn’t deign to be in the same paragraph as UCF. And that’s just off the field.
When it comes to the rivalry on the field, there is just no there there:
The War on I-4
|Since October 14, 2007
|Since October 14, 2007
|1st Round NFL Draftees
In all likelihood, come Friday, UCF will have erased South Florida’s lead in the all-time football series. But you know our beloved Bulls fans. They just can’t handle the truth. Every time you confront them with facts, they keep pointing out that they were #2 in the nation - once.
They don’t deserve our hatred, at least not anymore. They deserve our pity.
We say it’s OK, let them have that one.
They might have been #2 once, but they’ll always be #2 to us.