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To ditch 'Drive-Thru U' tag, South Florida needs own stadium

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. -- South Florida already plays in one of the top NFL stadiums in the country. However, USF coach Skip Holtz thinks the Bulls can play in an even better stadium.

One located on USF's campus.

"If done right, yes, I would be in favor of an on-campus stadium," Holtz told CBSSports.com.

Holtz says playing off campus doesn't create the same enthusiasm for a program and its fans. (US Presswire)  
Holtz says playing off campus doesn't create the same enthusiasm for a program and its fans. (US Presswire)  
When the Bulls' program began in 1997 as a Division I-AA independent, it made perfect sense to play in an NFL stadium across town. USF began in the Big Sombrero -- old Tampa Stadium -- before moving next door to the Tampa Bay Bucs' new home at Raymond James Stadium a year later.

Back then, the Bulls didn't need an on-campus stadium. They had a few more pressing needs. The coaches worked out of trailers and, in their first season, the Bulls' rain gear consisted of green Hefty bags.

But this is a different time at USF: much different. The program is beginning its 15th season, the seventh in a BCS conference. The Bulls are no longer a fledgling Division I-AA program or a FBS independent or a Conference USA member. They have new blood and new attitudes ready to embrace another level of commitment.

It's no surprise that the top three reasons the Bulls don't have an on-campus stadium are cash, cash and cash. Holtz is sensitive to those concerns.

"I don't think anyone thinks we should make a commitment to jump into it without putting the studies in place," Holtz said. "What is it going to cost? Where it should be built? That should be looked at -- those are the things to look at to see if it's even feasible.

"It's a very difficult economic time for a lot of universities and a lot of people. You have to be considerate of that with what you're going through. Is now the right time? Let's look at that and find out. It may be a little harder to raise [the funds] now, but it's also cheaper to build."

Having played in an NFL stadium since its inception, USF fans are accustomed to certain perks, such as luxury boxes and club levels. So the Bulls obviously can't just encircle a football field with some aluminum bleachers, like their "friends" at UCF, 90 miles up I-4.

"It would be great to have people from all over the state and country come to this campus and see what's here," Holtz said. "At the same time, there are advantages to playing in one of the top NFL stadiums in the country. If you're going to build a stadium on campus, the commitment has to be there to do it right."

Instead of a stadium like the one at Central Florida, USF would have to build a stadium similar to the University of Minnesota's. The Golden Gophers finished their palace in 2009 -- a $303 million palace.

USF should take notes on how the Golden Gophers got it done. Here's how Minnesota's financing plan worked, according to school officials: state funding $137 million, student fees $13 million, parking $13 million, fundraising $91.9 million, athletics $27.8 million and other payments $20.4 million.

A 25-year naming rights deal to TCF Bank Stadium brought in $35 million. The school has a debt service of $2 million a year and they make their last payment in 2034.

By no longer playing in the Metrodome, Minnesota officials said the net effect is that the school has about $1.5 million per year in additional revenue in the new stadium.

USF currently pays the Tampa Sports Authority, which manages Raymond James Stadium, about $150,000 a year for a license fee. TSA also receives a ticket surcharge equal to 8 percent of each USF ticket sold, not to exceed $2.50 per ticket.

The Bucs also retain the first $2 million in profits from parking and concessions at all of USF's home games so USF gets little, if any, revenue from concessions and parking.

But paying $303 million for a stadium? There's a better chance Jim Leavitt and Seth Greenberg both would return as USF coaches than the school stringing together $303 million.

However, USF doesn't need to duplicate the TCF Bank Stadium or build another 66,000-seat Raymond James Stadium. A 50,000-seat stadium -- with the ability to expand at a later date -- would be perfect and much less expensive.

How expensive? That depends on the school's commitment. UCF's 45,000-seat stadium cost $65 million in 2007 and North Texas' 31,000-seat stadium, which debuts this fall, cost $78 million.

In the past months, USF has made stunning changes on campus. USF has built new stadiums in baseball, softball and soccer, a new basketball practice facility, track and tennis courts and added new football practice fields and an artificial turf all-purpose field.

That came with about a $33.5 million price tag in which no state funds were used. The university also committed $35.6 million to renovate the Sun Dome, USF's home basketball arena. It's expected to be completed in April.

Besides coming up with a solid financial plan -- and don't forget USF will benefit handsomely when the Big East secures a new media rights deal worth at least $1 billion by 2013 -- USF also would have to decide where to build it. The two most popular places are a mall two miles from campus or USF's on-campus golf course. One Big East athletic director told me if he came to USF "the very first thing I would do is blow up the golf course and drop a stadium right there."

Ever since USF was founded in 1956, it's been described as a commuter school. Drive-Thru U. is what comedian Gallagher, a USF graduate, calls his alma mater. One way to forever lose the commuter school tag would be to have an on-campus stadium.

Holtz knows the experience of coaching at schools with on-campus stadiums, such as Notre Dame, Florida State and East Carolina. There is a big difference.

"On the Monday of a big game week, the RVs start pulling into town, the TV trucks, the production trucks," Holtz said. "It creates a buzz and an energy on campus. Everyone is talking about it.

"It creates a great game day college atmosphere. [Off campus] you don't create that stir and enthusiasm. I think it would add an awful lot to the program to have the opportunity to play on campus, from the recruiting standpoint and from a student experience on campus."

Currently the majority of USF fans never step a foot on campus. They go to the football games and then head for home. USF athletic director Doug Woolard said RJS is a "tremendous facility" but is intrigued by the idea of the Bulls having an on-campus stadium.

"I think having an on-campus stadium really creates a special atmosphere at a university," Woolard said. "Around 50 percent of the fans that attend college athletic events are non-alumni, so for us to be able to bring 25,000 or more people on this campus six or seven times a year is a real advantage to the university.

"Probably even more for the academic side, for people to see what [USF President] Judy [Genshaft] has created and expanded and give people a better understanding what an asset USF is."

Even with an on-campus stadium, the Bulls still could have the best of both worlds by continuing to play one game a year at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls currently are one of nine FBS teams that play off campus.

"While all this is going on you have an opportunity to play in one of the top NFL stadiums in the country," Holtz said. "We do not have a bad deal and it's not something you're looking to sprint away from. But looking into what it would take to do it on campus has merit."

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