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College football: Florida programs come from fertile ground


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From the San Antonio (TX) News Express

She gets a few things off, but overall it's a good article.


College football: Florida programs come from fertile ground

Web Posted: 09/13/2007 12:33 AM CDT

Natalie England

San Antonio Express-News

nengland@express-news.net

As recently as three years ago, the South Florida football coaching staff didn't have offices  they worked out of trailers. Nor did they have permanent lights on the team's practice field. So, at dusk, the coaches used their high-beam car headlights to squeeze in a few extra snaps.

Yes, this is the same South Florida that last Saturday stunned 17th-ranked Auburn on the Tigers' home field.

Central Florida, South Florida's upstate cousin and fellow Division I-A newcomer, will have a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday before playing Texas, the biggest game in the school's 29 football seasons. The Knights will officially open Bright House Networks Stadium, a 45,000-seat facility so new that the freshly planted palm trees lining the stadium's entrance are still propped by braces.

In 1979, the year Central Florida played its first football game, UT legend Darrell Royal was nearly three years into coaching retirement. When the Southwest Conference broke up in 1996, the Knights were still months away from playing their first Division I-A game.

And yet Central Florida ranks as the graybeard in a quartet of Florida start-up schools trying to siphon off national recognition from the state's Big Three  Florida, Florida State and Miami.

In 1995, the Big Three represented the extent of the state's participation in I-A football. Now, seven schools share the stage. The newcomers  Central Florida, South Florida, Florida Atlantic and Florida International  have a combined 19 full seasons in the major-college ranks. Yet, their impact has been felt in significant ways.

South Florida, which made its I-A debut in 2001, owned upsets of Louisville and West Virginia before adding Auburn to its list of victims. Central Florida needed only a four-year apprenticeship in I-A before upsetting Alabama, and the Knights opened the season two weeks ago with a victory over North Carolina State.

Now, after an off week, Central Florida has the vaunted Longhorns in their sights.

"This is a new beginning for Central Florida," school athletic director Keith Tribble said. "It couldn't be more fitting than to have a storied program like Texas help us start that."

While UT football tradition dates back over a century, Central Florida's roots run about as deep as the palms outside the school's new stadium.

"You can't manufacture tradition," Tribble says. "The only way to get tradition is to create a winning program."

For Central Florida and South Florida, that hasn't been as difficult as many had predicted.

South Florida went 9-4 last season and won a bowl game for the first time, beating East Carolina 24-7 in the Papajohns.com Bowl. Central Florida, too, has a bowl game under its belt, a 2005 appearance in the Hawaii Bowl.

Florida Atlantic and Florida International, both in just their second seasons of I-A competition, have yet to find that kind of traction. Florida International is 0-14 since joining the I-A ranks.

Football start-ups are rare in the college ranks. Still, UT athletic director DeLoss Dodds recalls a game in 1981 in which the Longhorns were embroiled in a rugged contest with a "little Florida school." UT survived with a 14-7 victory.

"It was Miami," Dodds says. "They were just starting out."

The Hurricanes, who began major college competition in 1946, rebounded well from the loss to UT. They won five undisputed national titles over the next 20 seasons.

Florida, which has come to mirror Texas in its production of major-college players, now mirrors Texas in home-state colleges to accommodate those players. Texas boasts 10 schools playing major-college football. The pup among that group is North Texas, which began major-college competition in 1957.

Florida, Dodds says, "can start I-A programs and be successful by just recruiting kids in their backyard."

UT coach Mack Brown laughs that he nearly threw up when he learned of South Florida's upset of Auburn but adds that he wasn't shocked.

"You will see those Florida schools improve like Texas' can," Brown says. "Florida has really great players. Now they can stay at home."

The best model, to date, is South Florida. Head coach Jim Leavitt started the Bulls' program 11 years ago and has managed it ever since.

In 1996, the Bulls did nothing but practice. They followed that with four years in Division I-AA before graduating to I-A status in 2001. South Florida won 17 games in its first two seasons as an independent, then joined Conference USA for two years. In 2004, South Florida joined the Big East.

"That gave us a platform," South Florida athletic director Doug Woolard says. "It gave us access to the BCS, and that brought a new recruiting philosophy."

It also allowed Leavitt and staff to move out of their trailers. South Florida opened a 104,000-square-foot training center in 2004.

"Jim has a chance to do something that I don't think has ever been done in history," Woolard says. "And that's start a program, stay with it and take it to a place of national prominence."

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"For Central Florida and South Florida, that hasn't been as difficult as many had predicted"

I remember a certain losing streak that nullifies the first half of this statement.

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yea didnt they lose like 17 in a row.  yet, she is quick to point out that FIU is 0-14.

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oh, i just saw where this article came from...Texas Longhorn country.  Its just their media's backhanded attempt and trying to get some excitement for the UCF game this weekend

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