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Think attendance will hurt USF's Big 12 bid? Think again

Bulls fans celebrate following USF's 21-13 victory against West Virginia at Raymond James Stadium in 2007.

TED MCLAREN | Times

Bulls fans celebrate following USF's 21-13 victory against West Virginia at Raymond James Stadium in 2007.

Though USF officials continue taking a covert approach in their pursuit of a Big 12 invitation, it's believed they'll point to the school's Big East heyday as evidence the Bulls are a viable expansion candidate.

Based on the attendance numbers alone, they have a point.

Over the last 11 years, dating to when USF began Big East play in 2005, USF has averaged 40,545 fans. The zenith during that stretch was reached in 2007, when the Bulls -- who would climb to No. 2 in the BCS standings -- averaged 53,170 fans for six home games.

By comparison, UCF has averaged 36,381 during that same span, with Cincinnati (30,288) and Houston (25,630) owning even smaller figures. BYU, widely mentioned as a leading contender to join the Big 12, averaged 61,024 over those 11 years.

Pulling down USF's average has been the last three seasons, when the Bulls -- 14-23 in that span -- have averaged fewer than 35,000 fans each of those years. But from 2007-12, the program's annual average attendance never fell below 40,000.

That stretch -- combined with USF's rising academic status, media-market size and fertile recruiting base -- is believed to be at the crux of USF's pitch to Big 12 administrators.

Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan will attend the American Athletic Conference's Summer Kickoff and Media Days in Newport, R.I., on Monday and Tuesday, though he's not likely to break his silence on the specifics of USF's pursuit.
 …

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Bulls returning to roots for first practice

USF football coach Willie Taggart (center) is honoring the 20th season of Bulls football by holding his first workout of 2016 on the program's original practice field.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF football coach Willie Taggart (center) is honoring the 20th season of Bulls football by holding his first workout of 2016 on the program's original practice field.

In recognition of the upcoming 20th season of USF football, the Bulls are going old-school -- and old-sod -- for their inaugural practice of 2016.

The Bulls announced their first preseason workout, Thursday at 10 a.m., will be held on the program's original practice fields just north of the Morsani Practice Complex. The public is invited.

“We thought it would be a nice nod to the history of our program and how far it has come to begin practice for our 20th season on the fields where the program began,” Coach Willie Taggart said in a school news release.

Taggart, who has operated one of the most liberal open-practice policies in Division I in recent years, is going slightly more conservative this time. Only the first three practices -- Thursday, Friday and Saturday -- will be open to the public. Seven August workouts were open in 2015.

The first two practices will feature veterans only (freshmen will practice at a different time), with the first full-squad workout set for Saturday. All are scheduled to start at 10 a.m.

The Friday and Saturday workouts will be held at the Morsani Complex. Fans are encouraged to park in the Sycamore lot on the east end of campus near 50th street.

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Report: Expansion decision may come before season

The Big 12, led by Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, could invite as many as four schools into its conference before the start of the 2016 football season, according to CBS Sports.

AP photo

The Big 12, led by Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, could invite as many as four schools into its conference before the start of the 2016 football season, according to CBS Sports.

The longer the Big 12 puts off its decision regarding expansion, every Bulls game -- from Towson to Temple -- becomes a referendum on their Power Five viability.

Now, it appears it may not come to that.

CBS Sports, citing three anonymous sources "with knowledge of the ongoing process," reported the Big 12 wants to finalize its decison on expansion before the start of the 2016 season. The sources indicated league officials don't want the issue to overshadow the season itself, according to the report.

If the expansion decision is football-driven, as most presume it is, that may not bode well for the Bulls.

A prevailing theory is, a delay in the decision gives USF -- a trendy pick to win the American Athletic Conference's East Division -- more time to fortify its football brand and improve home attendance. Consider how appealing a Bulls upset of FSU -- before a likely sellout crowd on Sept. 24 -- would be to Big 12 honchos watching.

A short-term decision means USF would have to sell itself despite one winning record in the last half-decade (last season's 8-5 mark), feeble attendance figures (26,578 average home attendance in 2015) and stagnant philanthropic support ($2.5 million in the 2014-15 academic year, according to USF Athletics' five-year strategic plan).

At that point, the school's academic stature, fertile recruiting back yard and media market size (11th nationally according to Nielsen) would be its strongest selling points.

The expansion issue is expected to dominate conversation at the AAC's Summer Kickoff and Media Days, set for Monday and Tuesday in Newport, R.I.

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Bulls land commitments in triplicate

The Bulls' mesmerizing surge of late-summer verbal commitments continued Wednesday with three central Florida prospects pledging to USF simultaneously.

Cocoa QB Bruce Judson Jr., Apopka ATH Demetri Burch and Orlando Dr. Phillips WR Emare Hogan all slipped on USF shirts and/or hats during a live press conference streamed on the Orlando Sentinel's website. (Here's the link).

Judson (5-foot-9, 203 pounds), a four-star prospect, represents a coup for Bulls Coach Willie Taggart. A onetime Ohio State commitment, he's ranked the nation's No. 14 athlete by 247Sports and has more than 30 offers.

Burch and Hogan are three-star recruits. …

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Bulls to remain mum about Big 12 pursuit

USF athletic director Mark Harlan is among the Bulls administrators working quietly behind the scenes in the school's pursuit of Big 12 membership.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

USF athletic director Mark Harlan is among the Bulls administrators working quietly behind the scenes in the school's pursuit of Big 12 membership.

As you read this, the covert efforts to nudge USF farther up college sports' food chain are ongoing. Don't let the dearth of tweets or sound bites fool you. The Bulls would love to join the Big 12.

Here's what they won't join: The chorus of presidents and athletic directors publicly lobbying for an invitation for their respective schools.

After pondering whether to go more public about their Big 12 aspirations, USF officials have opted to stay their current course and keep operating below the radar, the Tampa Bay Times has learned.  

Harlan and Coach Willie Taggart are sure to be asked about the Bulls' Power Five pursuit at next week's American Athletic Conference Summer Kickoff and Media Days, but any response is expected to mirror the one Harlan made when outlining his department's five-year strategic plan to school trustees in May.

"We're aspirational, but this university's aspirational," Harlan said then. "If there's something that we're aspirational toward and it makes sense for the university, let's go for it."

The taciturn approach, which USF officials believe is the most prudent going forward, stands in glaring contrast to the public comments emanating from other Big 12 prospects nationally.

UCF president John Hitt has publicly said there "ought to be a home" for the Knights in the Big 12, while East Carolina has campaigned for its cause via its official athletics Twitter handle (@ECUAthletics). …

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Terriers ATH Duran Bell pledges to USF

Hillsborough High two-way star Duran Bell has committed to USF, according to online reports.

MONICA HERNDON | Times

Hillsborough High two-way star Duran Bell has committed to USF, according to online reports.

USF's barrage of non-binding verbal commitments continued Tuesday with Hillsborough ATH Duran Bell giving his pledge to the Bulls, according to various online reports.

Bell's commitment comes a day after Jefferson High OG Jean Marcellus gave his word to the Bulls. Bell (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), the Terriers' top rusher with nearly 600 yards last season, is No. 39 on the 2016 HomeTeam 100 list of the area's top prep players.

He's a three-star prospect according to 247Sports.

The Bulls have collected six non-binding commitments since Saturday, and now have eight overall. Earlier Tuesday, Tallahassee North Florida Christian OLB Michael Scott also committed to USF. 

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Ken Eriksen again strikes gold

USF softball coach Ken Eriksen (second from left) guided the U.S. National Team to a gold medal at last week's WBSC Women's Softball World Championship in Surrey, Canada.

Photo provided by Ken Eriksen

USF softball coach Ken Eriksen (second from left) guided the U.S. National Team to a gold medal at last week's WBSC Women's Softball World Championship in Surrey, Canada.

If all goes as Ken Eriksen hopes, USF's veteran softball coach ultimately could be competing for a gold medal even more priceless than the one he picked up last week in Canada.

Eriksen, who watched his U.S. National Team roll past Japan in Sunday's title game of the WBSC Women's Softball World Championship, seems optimistic his sport will be reinstated to the Olympic schedule in time for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

The International Olympic Committee announced recently it will recommend baseball and softball be added in an Aug. 3 general-assembly vote in Rio De Janeiro, site of this year's Olympics. Softball previously was an Olympic sport from 1996-2008; Eriksen was an assistant on the '04 U.S. team that steamrolled its way to a gold medal.

"The buzz is that we're to be prepared for some positive news coming up," Eriksen said Tuesday.

"All indications right now...are to be very cautiously optimistic for the vote on Aug. 3. ... I've been through this twice right now where it's been rejected, so I'm not gonna believe anything until I hear it coming from Rio. When we hear it coming from Rio, that's when I'll believe it."

The recent tournament in Canada did nothing to harm the sport's momentum.

The 15th Women's Softball World Championship attracted 30 national teams, representing the largest global footprint in the event's history, according to the WBSC. The U.S. finished 9-0, capped by Sunday's 7-3 triumph against Japan. Collectively, the Eagles -- as the U.S. team is known -- outscored its competition 83-10.

"We didn't do much scouting reports in respect of worrying about the other teams. This is the first time that I've ever done that with our team," Eriksen said. "We really focused on what we were trying to do each day to (better) ourselves tomorrow. We wanted to be better than we were (the previous day). ... And that's what we really, really locked in on."

Among the key contributors was Bulls pitching coach Jess Moore, who picked up the win in the title game by allowing a run on four hits in 2.2 innings. Moore also threw a complete-game, five-inning shutout against Venezuela in the quarterfinals.

"Jess was a bulldog, threw some huge innings for us in some big games," said Eriksen, whose staff posted a 1.19 ERA in the tournament. "She was just a stalwart...and a big part of that gold medal, no question about it."

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Sun rises on Courtney Williams' pro career

Former USF star Courtney Williams (right), vying for a loose ball against Dallas' Erin Phillips, has found a new lease on her WNBA life with the Connecticut Sun.

AP photo

Former USF star Courtney Williams (right), vying for a loose ball against Dallas' Erin Phillips, has found a new lease on her WNBA life with the Connecticut Sun.

Technically, she made her professional debut on May 14 in Minneapolis. But the Courtney Williams familiar to Bulls fans didn't truly hit the WNBA scene until the evening of July 2.

Having been traded to the Connecticut Sun from Phoenix only a week before, Williams watched from a College Park Center bench as host Dallas built a 13-2 lead. Unable to stomach what was transpiring any longer, Sun coach Curt Miller opted for a wholesale substitution, supplanting the quintent on the floor with five off the bench.

Williams was among those who entered. What proceeded wasn't necessarily pretty, but it provided the spark Miller was seeking. Five minutes into the second quarter, Connecticut had rallied for a 26-25 lead, with Williams providing five points and six rebounds.

The Sun would hold on for an 86-83 triumph.

"We all got in and we did what coach wanted us to do: rebound, defend, score," Williams recalled, "and we put our team in a position to get back in the game." 

Finally, after a frustrating commencement to her WNBA career in Phoenix, Williams had made a contribution instead of a cameo.

Buried on a Phoenix depth chart that already featured WNBA legend Diana Taurasi and three-time WNBA All-Star Penny Taylor, Williams was traded to the Sun -- a club clearly building for the future -- on June 25.

Since the trade, Williams -- a two-time first-team All-American Athletic Conference pick and the No. 2 scorer in USF history -- has averaged 6.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 13.1 minutes in nine contests.

The 24 minutes she logged in a four-point loss to Minnesota on July 7 equaled the minutes she totaled in six contests with Phoenix, which drafted her with the eighth overall pick in April.

"A way better fit as far as basketball-wise, getting the playing time and fitting into a system," Williams said of her new team in a recent phone interview. "I think this definitely works for me."

Her voice elicits the same exuberance it possessed on draft night, when Phoenix general manager Jim Pitman spoke of how Williams could provide a new dimension of "speed and quickness" to an all-star-caliber roster.

She ultimately provided only one field goal, in six games.

"I mean, it was definitely frustrating, but I think I was just being positive," Williams said. "My teammates needed a cheerleader, I was there. I just wanted to fit in where I could. I didn't want to be a Debbie Downer, so I was just doing whatever the team needed."

Now, she suddenly finds herself around peers with whom she can grow. Connecticut, among the WNBA's youngest teams, is 8-16 and in last place in the Eastern Division.

Williams, who will play professionally in Cyprus when the WNBA season ends, is among eight Sun players 25 or younger. She says she has been greeted warmly by the Connecticut fan base, already familiar with her hops, fleetness and dead-eye mid-range jump shot from her collegiate battles against UConn.

Among her new teammates: former Huskies low-post star Morgan Tuck.

"I definitely think we have a lot of potential," Williams said. "I think as far as when we learn the game a little bit more and we all get in sync a little bit better, I think we'll definitely be a tough team to beat."

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Jefferson's Jean Marcellus commits to USF

Jefferson lineman Jean Marcellus has committed to USF.

MONICA HERNDON | Times

Jefferson lineman Jean Marcellus has committed to USF.

Jefferson OL Jean Marcellus, ranked No. 19 on the Times' list of the top 100 local high school players for 2016, announced via Twitter on Monday that he has committed to USF.

Marcellus, a 6-foot-4, 301-pound Haiti native, is the fourth member of the Class of 2017 to give USF a non-binding pledge since Saturday night, when the Bulls wrapped up their one-day Saturday Night Lights camp. He projects as a guard in college.

"After Saturday Night Lights I felt something," Marcellus said in a text message Monday afternoon. "I love the atmosphere and the people around me. I really would like to play for my city."

Deemed a three-star prospect by 247Sports, Marcellus reportedly has 13 offers including Kentucky, Louisville and Miami.

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Full disclosure: My preseason AAC ballot

When the American Athletic Conference's preseason media poll is released the morning of Aug. 2, the Bulls could be forecast as the East Division champion.

At least they are on my ballot.

The one I turned in over the weekend (see below) is only slightly different from the post-spring AAC prediction I put together in May. The two most significant changes: I've moved Navy up one spot, to third in the West; and I bumped UCF from sixth to fifth in the East.

Navy's just too well coached to disappear from the radar, and I tend to believe UCF's offense and locker room have been reinvigorated. East Carolina, meantime, watched its onetime projected starting quarterback (Kurt Benkert) transfer.

East
1. USF
2. Temple
3. Connecticut
4. Cincinnati
5. UCF
6. East Carolina

West
1. Houston
2. Memphis
3. Navy
4. Tulsa
5. SMU
6. Tulane

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Five Bulls to join Taggart at AAC media kickoff

USF quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) and tailback Marlon Mack (5) will appear at the American Athletic Conference's Summer Kickoff and Media Days next week, the league confirmed.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) and tailback Marlon Mack (5) will appear at the American Athletic Conference's Summer Kickoff and Media Days next week, the league confirmed.

A quintent of Bulls veterans will accompany Coach Willie Taggart to the American Athletic Conference's annual Summer Kickoff and Media Days in Newport, R.I., next week, the league announced Monday.

Joining Taggart will be QB Quinton Flowers, RB Marlon Mack, WR Rodney Adams, MLB Auggie Sanchez and CB Deatrick Nichols. No other team will send as many players to Newport, though four other teams are taking four. USF is one of six schools that will bring their projected starting quarterback.

Live coverage of the event can be seen on The American Digital Network on Aug. 2 starting at 9 a.m. Here's the full list of those slated to attend:

UCF: Coach Scott Frost, QB Justin Holman, DT Jamiyus Pittman
Cincinnati: Coach Tommy Tuberville, C Deyshawn Bond, LB Eric Wilson
Connecticut: Coach Bob Diaco, OT Andreas Knappe, S Obi Melifonwu, WR Noel Thomas, LB Matt Walsh
East Carolina: Coach Scottie Montgomery, CB DeShaun Amos, WR Zay Jones
Houston: Coach Tom Herman, DE Cameron Malveaux, TE Tyler McCloskey, QB Greg Ward Jr., CB Brandon Wilson
Memphis: Coach Mike Norvell, K Jake Elliott, WR Anthony Miller, S Chris Morley
Navy: Coach Ken Niumatalolo, LB Daniel Gonzales, RB Toneo Gulley
USF: Coach Willie Taggart, WR Rodney Adams, QB Quinton Flowers, RB Marlon Mack, CB Deatrick Nichols, MLB Auggie Sanchez
SMU: Coach Chad Morris, QB Matt Davis, DE Justin Lawler, LB Jackson Mitchell, WR Courtland Sutton
Temple: Coach Matt Rhule, OT Dion Dawkins, RB Jahad Thomas, QB Phillip Walker, LB Avery Williams
Tulane: Coach Willie Fritz, DT Tanzel Smart, OG Chris Taylor
Tulsa: Coach Philip Montgomery, QB Dane Evans, WR Keevan Lucas, LB Trent Martin

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Bulls land 3 weekend commitments

In the immediate wake of their last on-campus recruiting showcase of the summer, the Bulls have landed three non-binding verbal commitments from the Class of 2017.

On Sunday, Orange Park Oakleaf DB Nick Roberts and North Marion OT Jeremiah Stafford both announced via Twitter they have committed to USF. The night before, shortly after the Bulls wrapped up their Saturday Night Lights event on campus, Miami Dr. Krop WR Randall St. Felix tweeted his commitment to the Bulls.

The latest pledges give USF five non-binding commitments for the Class of '17.

Roberts (5-foot-10, 170 pounds), a three-star prospect according to 247Sports, reportedly has nearly two-dozen offers including Florida, Miami, South Carolina, UCLA and Penn State. Stafford (6-4, 285) and St. Felix (6-2, 190) are deemed two-star prospects by Scout.com.

Though in perpetual recruiting mode, Coach Willie Taggart and his staff now shift from summer camps to preseason camp.

Taggart and select Bulls players will attend the American Athletic Conference Media Days Aug. 1-2, with Taggart slated to join a handful of other coaches at the ESPN "Car Wash" at the network's Bristol, Conn., campus on Aug. 3. …

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UPDATED: Bulls assistant resigns in wake of probe

USF men's basketball coach Orlando Antigua (center, hands out) and his brother Oliver (left) during a game at the Sun Dome last November.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF men's basketball coach Orlando Antigua (center, hands out) and his brother Oliver (left) during a game at the Sun Dome last November.

USF men's basketball assistant Oliver Antigua, younger brother of Coach Orlando Antigua, has resigned in the wake of a report that the Bulls are under NCAA investigation for academic fraud.

ESPN, citing "multiple" unnamed sources, first reported the news of the probe early Wednesday afternoon. According to the report, Oliver Antigua hadn't been permitted to go on the road recruiting this month.

Wednesday marked the beginning of the summer's last five-day evaluation period.

Other departures could follow, the Tampa Bay Times has learned. The investigation is believed to involve players on the current roster.

"The University of South Florida and the NCAA enforcement staff are working together to investigate and resolve an inquiry into potential violations of NCAA bylaws and university standards by one of our intercollegiate athletic programs," the school said in a statement.

"Because the University of South Florida is committed to protecting the integrity of the investigation and ensuring those involved receive fair treatment, we cannot provide any details about the investigation at this time." …

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Fan Fest to feature all 19 Bulls teams

If nothing else, the 2016 USF Fan Fest promises a significantly larger turnout than recent years.

And that's just from those brandishing Sharpies.

The latest Fan Fest, set for Aug. 27 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Sun Dome, will feature all of the Bulls' nearly 500 student-athletes and coaches of all 19 teams, the school announced Wednesday. Admission is free.

Teams will be available to sign autographs and pose for pictures. Interactive and inflatable games also will be featured, and official USF team gear will be on sale.

Parking also is free. Fans are encouraged to enter through gates A and D of the Sun Dome.

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FSU-USF on pace for sellout

FSU tailback Dalvin Cook tries to break free from USF cornerback Johnny Ward during the Seminoles' victory in Tallahassee last September.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

FSU tailback Dalvin Cook tries to break free from USF cornerback Johnny Ward during the Seminoles' victory in Tallahassee last September.

The FSU-USF game is two-thirds of the way to a sellout.

USF reported Wednesday approximately 44,000 tickets already have been sold (or set aside) for the Sept. 24 contest -- a potential top-25 clash -- at Raymond James Stadium, which has an official seating capacity of 65,890.

The last Bulls-'Noles encounter in Tampa, in 2012, attracted USF's largest home crowd ever (69,383).

The 44,000 tickets accounted for include FSU's allotment (10,000) and 11,500 being held for USF students, the school indicated. Roughly 80 percent of the lower-level seats (about 15,000) -- available only by the purchase of a season ticket or a three-game flex plan -- have been sold.

Approximately 60 percent (7,000) of the seats in the 300 level, available as single-game tickets, also are gone.

Prices began at $85 and $95 for the game, depending on location, but USF indicated those figures may rise based on demand. Tickets available Wednesday on StubHub began at $103.

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