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Requiem for a Rivalry: The War on I-4

Why no other opponent can match USF in terms of pure rancor, pettiness, and intensity

South Florida vs Central Florida Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

I’ve felt it. So have you. Admit it.

It happens every time the UCF Knights and South Florida Bulls meet in any sport.

“It” is that hair standing up on the back of your neck every time you hear those three letters.

“It” is the thing that makes you take valuable time out of your busy day to do stuff like this:

“It” is rivalry.

And we’re on the verge of losing it.

I’ve long been an advocate for the War on I-4, even before UCF and South Florida were conference mates. I also maintain the unpopular stance that a healthy USF is good for UCF, for the state of Florida, and for college football. For proof of that, you need not look any further than that magical Black Friday in 2017:

With UCF now announcing that 2022-23 will be its final year in The American, it will also be the Knights’ final season as conference mates with their hated rivals. And yes, I know the two schools will very much likely meet again in non-conference match-ups in several sports.

But football is both schools’ crown jewel sport, and they won’t meet on the gridiron for the better part of a decade at least, if ever again.

I’ve heard many UCF fans argue that, with the move to the Big 12, it’s time to leave South Florida behind, both literally and figuratively, like they’re Tulane or ECU.

I disagree. I argue that, once that happens, we will lose something integral to what makes college sports so great: Our only natural rival, living within our conference.

It’s Personal

The War on I-4 rivalry is filled with the stuff that great college rivalries are made of: Proximity. Condescension. Drama. Politics. Pettiness.

Lord almighty, the pettiness.

It wasn’t all that long ago our places were reversed. While UCF was toiling through the MAC and Conference USA, South Florida played their cards right, and was just one step ahead, and loved to remind us of it.

Give them credit: They proved it. USF beat UCF four times in a row from 2005-2008, including the infamous 64-12 beatdown by the bay.

Recall Joe Henderson’s infamous 2008 column in the erstwhile Tampa Tribune, when he declared the series had “outlived its usefulness”:

I’ll be honest, it made sense at the time. That’s why I was so angry about it.

But while the Bulls’ program beat UCF not only on the field but off of it — to Conference USA, the Big East, and a major conference payout — UCF got the wake-up call, looked at its older and once-savvier brother, hit the gym, and got lean and mean enough to catch USF in the next conference shuffle.

It was then that it got really personal.

Former USF President Judy Genshaft was so dead-set against UCF joining the Big East that she ended up blowing up the entire conference out of spite. And her reward was less money and UCF joining The American anyway.

USF fans denied it. They were lied to:

Fast forward a decade, and look who’s getting left behind now, due to rank pettiness.

This is some serious Auburn-Alabama-level stuff. Legacies and tens of millions of dollars cast aside to avoid “elevating” the other. And before you say, “Whoa there, champ,” recall that Auburn and Alabama didn’t play from 1907-1948 because of a dispute over $34.

This stuff makes for great content, not to mention the games.

Anything You Can Do...

All rivalries must manifest on the field of play. Bulls fans like to tout their school’s advantage in the all-time series across all sports, but Knight Nation can boast dominance since their school has been on an equal footing:

War on I-4 Series Records

Sport Pre-AAC (1972-2013) Leader AAC Era (2013-Present) Leader All-Time Series Leader
Sport Pre-AAC (1972-2013) Leader AAC Era (2013-Present) Leader All-Time Series Leader
Football 4-0 South Florida 7-2 UCF 7-6 UCF
Volleyball 49-25 South Florida 18-0 UCF 49-43 South Florida
Men's Soccer 21-4-4 South Florida 7-5 South Florida 28-9-4 South Florida
Women's Soccer 7-1 UCF 5-4-4 South Florida 11-6-4 UCF
Men's Basketball 20-5 South Florida 14-5 UCF 25-19 South Florida
Women's Basketball 19-8 South Florida 11-9 South Florida 30-17 South Florida
Baseball 63-56 South Florida 22-18 UCF 81-78 South Florida
Softball 9-2 South Florida 18-10 UCF 20-19 UCF
Men's Tennis 28-6 South Florida 8-5 South Florida 36-11 South Florida
Women's Tennis 15-3 South Florida 7-5 UCF 20-10 South Florida
TOTAL 226-114-4 South Florida 110-73-4 UCF 299-224-8 South Florida
Note: Some of these tallies are disputed within the official sources.

That doesn’t include the fact that UCF has won 37 American Athletic Conference titles across all sports — tied for the most with Houston — while South Florida has won just 26, the same as Tulsa.

UCF’s dominance of the rivalry in the AAC Era has also manifested itself in the fact that UCF has won every War on I-4 all-sports trophy since the rivalry was formalized in 2016.

But football is where the message was most clear: UCF got the word, got serious, and left USF in the dust.

This might be the reason why UCF fans can claim we’ve left the rivalry behind, but I argue that’s not the case: That head-to-head comparison is what rivalry is made of. It’s why UCF got serious about competing across all sports. The turn-around has tracked almost linearly with football

It’s why that rivalry with your sibling is just that much more intense than the one with your high school friend.

We’re about to lose the thing that forced us to get better.

The “Juice” Factor

Former New York Knicks GM Ernie Grunfeld said they had a word for the atmosphere whenever Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers or Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls came into Madison Square Garden in the 1990s: “juice”.

That “juice” is what makes the War on I-4 rivalry so special. It’s also another thing we’re going to miss when UCF leaves South Florida behind in The American.

Again, fans argue that Cincinnati or Houston could fill the void, but no school among UCF’s future conference mates in the Big 12 can bring that “juice” the way South Florida can, regardless of how good they are.

Just look at the 2021 game, where 7-4 UCF faced a home game as a 17-point favorite against a hapless 2-9 South Florida team.

It works the other way too: Consider 2008, when then-#17 South Florida (who would finish 8-5), faced a listless UCF team bound for a 4-8 year. That Knights team pushed the Bulls to overtime in a dramatic end to regulation before falling:

So on the field, it’s crystal clear: UCF and South Florida elevate one another.

The same is true off the field, and whether or not you want to deny it, you, the fans, have proven it.

Let’s take a look at the average home attendance for UCF’s home games against South Florida compared to the rest of their opponents in seasons when the two teams played in Orlando:

UCF Football Home Attendance

Season vs. USF vs. All Others (Avg) % Difference
Season vs. USF vs. All Others (Avg) % Difference
2013 45,952 41,311 11.23%
2015 25,967 30,884 -15.92%
2017 47,129 35,223 33.80%
2019 45,216 43,502 3.94%
2021 41,157 40,305 2.11%
TOTAL 41,084 38,245 7.42%
w/o 2015 44,864 40,085 11.92%

You may say you don’t care about them anymore, but you do. And this proves it.

Excepting the winless 2015 disaster, when UCF plays South Florida in the Bounce House, you can expect nearly 5,000 more fans to show up, and that’s on the day after Thanksgiving.

And football isn’t separate from this phenomenon — Here’s Men’s Basketball:

UCF Men’s Basketball Home Attendance

Season vs. USF vs. All Others (Avg) % Difference
Season vs. USF vs. All Others (Avg) % Difference
2013-2014 6,108 5,245 16.45%
2014-2015 6,201 3,921 58.15%
2015-2016 3,603 4,575 -21.25%
2016-2017 5,765 4,493 28.31%
2017-2018 4,310 4,658 -7.47%
2018-2019 4,719 4,724 -0.11%
2019-2020 6,433 4,957 29.78%
2021-2022 6,722 4,861 38.28%
TOTAL 5,483 4,679 17.17%
NOTE: 2020-2021 season not included due to COVID attendance restrictions

They say we vote with our feet. If that’s the case, UCF fans clearly want the War on I-4 to keep going.

USF Won’t Suck Forever

When you beat your rival as soundly as UCF has in recent years, a sense of permanence sets in.

There’s a word for that: Complacency.

Since that fateful day — October 14, 2007 — South Florida has been learning the hard way what happens when you’re complacent. It has been nothing but a downward spiral for them. We documented it ad nauseam here, in case you want to bathe in some schadenfreude for a bit:

But 15 years on, I fear we’re starting to become them circa 2007.

Think about it: The growing sense that we’re above them, they no longer matter, and it will forever remain that way:

We know this from personal experience: They were above us in every athletic metric 15 years ago. Then we got really serious and it flipped. But to assume it will always be that way is a mistake.

“Complacency is the last hurdle standing between any team and its potential greatness.” — Pat Riley

There are two kinds of games, according to Simon Sinek: finite and infinite. In a finite game, there is a clear end, with a clear winner and a clear loser. But in an infinite game, the point is to keep playing, unless one or more parties drop out due to a lack of will or resources to keep playing.

Systems are stable when both competitors are playing the same kind of game. But when one side thinks it’s playing a finite game while the other thinks it’s playing an infinite game, that’s where problems arise, particularly for the finite player. That’s when you do things like focusing on the short term over the long term or abandoning your first principles. Meanwhile, the infinite player keeps chugging along while you’re stuck in a morass.

I fear that UCF — and its fans in particular — are in danger of playing the finite game, thinking we’ve officially crossed the finish line.

Meanwhile, USF is beginning to play the infinite game once again. They’ve begun construction of an indoor practice facility. They’re raising funds and have selected a site to finally build an on-campus football stadium.

Like we did in 2007, they got the memo. Now they’re acting on it.

That’s the thing about rivals: They elevate your performance on and off the field because no matter what happens, we have to beat them. And if they’ve beaten us, we have to do something to catch and surpass them.

It works both ways.

My advice to Knight Nation: Don’t be Joe Henderson. This series has not outlived its usefulness. Because once you think it has, the other guy comes back and punches right back up at you.

UCF Could Grab the Permanent Upper Hand

Here’s where a great opportunity presents itself to UCF.

South Florida had their chance to advance the infinite game in 2012 by supporting UCF entering the Big East — or at least not standing in the way. They didn’t, and here they are.

Now USF is in a frantic race with Memphis, Boise State, and a select few others for possibly the final seats on the Power Conference train, and it’s not going to come back for a long time, if ever.

If that train stops in Temple Terrace, it’s my argument that UCF should do for USF what USF did not do for UCF two decades ago: Give them a hand up.

The reasons for that are simple:

  1. It’s good for the state of Florida. One more power conference school cements the Sunshine State as college football’s epicenter.
  2. Look back at that 2017 game. That’s what this rivalry can bring to the Big 12. No other opponent brings the juice for UCF like USF, and when both teams are good, no rivalry, not even Texas and Oklahoma (Yeah, I said it, deal with it), brings the raw, personal, politics-infused emotional rage like the War on I-4.
  3. This is the big one: UCF will be able to claim the upper hand permanently.

Think about it. The tweets write themselves: “Oh, you’re good now? Wonderful. Just remember: Unlike you, we did the right thing, even after you did us wrong. And no matter what you do, WE are the reason you’re even here.

Gronk himself couldn’t spike a ball that hard.

The End of an Era?

So what, you may say. It’s a new era. Why should we elevate them when they screwed us for years?

I get it. I was there. I hate them for it myself.

And that hatred and everything that goes into it is part of what makes every rivalry — especially this rivalry — so good. We just don’t have the bad blood with Houston or Cincinnati that we do with South Florida, and we never will. I don’t want to lose that.

Sure, we’ll meet them time and again across sports. But there’s something different when it’s within a conference. That consistent level of familiarity breeds intensity in a way that non-conference meetings just don’t. And since there’s no guarantee we’ll meet them in football after 2022, we risk losing the flagship annual game on our schedule — the one game that always matters, regardless of record.

Louisa Mae Alcott once said, “Rivalry adds so much to the charms of one’s conquests.” It would be a real shame to forever lose the charm that the War on I-4 brings us.

We’ll have incredible moments and great games with massive implications against our future Big 12 foes. But none of them will be as intense or as special as the War on I-4.