South Florida: From nowhere to No. 2
Vail, CO Colorado
TAMPA, Fla. ” Wally Burnham was one of the lucky ones. From his desk in the doublewide trailer, he actually could see the world beyond.
“Some of the offices had windows. Some didn’t,” Burnham remembered. “I had a window. It came with the job. I had a palm tree right in front of my window.”
A palm tree and a dream. That was about all South Florida had going for it in those early years.
“We were selling the dream,” said defensive coordinator Burnham. “We were trying to sell guys on the idea of building something.”
Just over a decade removed from starting a college football program from scratch ” or, more specifically, from a trailer park on this sprawling urban campus ” South Florida finds itself lording over such mighty powers as Florida and Southern Cal and Notre Dame, with all their trophies and traditions.
Trophies? The most prominent piece of hardware in South Florida’s athletic building is from its one and only postseason victory, the PapaJohns.com Bowl less than 10 months ago. The Rose Bowl, it ain’t.
Tradition? The closest thing around here to Touchdown Jesus was the “Ponderosa” ” the affectionate nickname for a now deposed group of trailers that once housed the coaches’ offices and meeting rooms. That’s where the Bulls cut their teeth, enduring floors pocked with holes, huge young men crammed into tiny spaces and the occasional drive from the baseball field next door.
“We don’t have the tradition of those other schools,” said South Florida’s high-strung coach, Jim Leavitt. “We do have a story to tell.”
Ten years after taking the field for the first time, facing schools such as Kentucky Wesleyan and Cumberland, the Bulls are one spot away from being the No. 1 team in the land.
The only school ahead of them is Ohio State, a regal program that was winning national titles before South Florida even existed ” and we’re talking about the university, not just the football program.
“I always knew there was a lot of potential here,” said Doug Woolard, the Bulls’ athletic director. “But it’s like a switch flipped on.”
Call it the Sunshine State miracle.