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2002: I Absolutely Cannot Watch This


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USF
 

2002: I Absolutely Cannot Watch This

On Sept. 3, the Bulls will start their 20th season of football.  This summer we’ll take a look back at 20 moments, one for each season, including the “practice but no games” year of 1996.  These may not be the biggest moments in USF history; they may not even be moments where things went right for the Bulls.  But they help define the program, remind us where the time has gone, and show how our Bulls have progressed as season 20 gets closer and closer.

By JIM LOUK

Voice of the Bulls

TAMPA, JUNE 24, 2016 – We’d grown used to USF Football moving at a breakneck pace, and sometimes we got impatient when the rest of the college football world didn’t move as fast.

We thought for sure we’d start playing Conference USA football in 2002, but for one reason or another, it didn’t happen. We were getting football membership, but not until 2003. That was something to look forward to, but it created problems for 2002 in what would be the last year without a conference affiliation. We knew we had a great team that would have trouble getting a bowl bid. And, we knew a great senior class would leave without ever being able to compete for a conference championship.

Bowl games weren’t nearly as numerous then. Without a conference tie-in, it was virtually impossible to play in one. But the Bulls almost did it. And, they did get their first bowl bid, in only their sixth season.

Sort of.

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By this time, the Bulls were a full-fledged 1-A program; there was only a single 1-AA opponent on the 2002 schedule. It was a veteran team; the coaching staff had built the last few recruiting classes believing this would be the first conference season.

The schedule was pretty tough. Although the Bulls hadn’t been allowed into the conference yet, the league had provided some opponents.  Memphis, Houston and Southern Miss were on the schedule. The toughest two of the season were easy to identify. The Bulls would challenge Oklahoma and Arkansas on the road.

As expected, the 2002 team was outstanding. It was another perfect home season for the Bulls. Read about USF’s 21-game home winning streak HERE.

On the road, the visits to Norman and Little Rock proved to be the only losses. 

The Bulls won nine games for the first time in program history, swept through every Conference USA foe on the schedule, and beat their first top 25 opponent (Bowling Green). They had done all they could do. Now, it was up to the East Carolina Pirates.

Of all people.

On Dec. 6, 2002 in Greenville (where the Bulls had beaten ECU less than two months earlier), Cincinnati and East Carolina would decide whether the Bulls would go to a bowl game. If Cincinnati won, it would be bowl eligible at 7-6 (no sub .500 teams got in back then) and all C-USA bowl slots would be filled. If East Carolina won, C-USA would be one eligible team short.  Enter the Bulls at that point, provisional Hawaii Bowl bid in hand.

So Cincinnati had plenty to play for. Other than the pride teams take to the field in every game, all ECU had to play for was our offer to be best friends forever if it won. The Pirates were 4-7; it was their last game of 2002, no matter what.

The players and coaches gathered at a local restaurant to watch the game, but I just couldn’t do it. Winning nine games and then having to hope was a tough one to take for me, so I can only imagine what it was like for the players and coaches who had so much more work invested than I did. By the time I finally gave in and turned it on at home, it was pretty much over.  Cincinnati won, 42-26.

There were some whispers about the possibility of making the Motor City Bowl as an at-large, but we pretty much knew it was over at that point. I remember soon afterward tossing out all the promotional and ticket sales material we had made for the Hawaii Bowl in case we made it. Wish I’d saved some of it now.

You often hear coaches, regardless of sport, saying they want to avoid situations where other teams determine their fate. That was never clearer than on that December day in 2002, when one of the great teams in Bulls history fell short of a bowl bid.

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