TAMPA — When USF board chairman Will Weatherford said the Bulls risked being left behind if they didn’t build a new football stadium, he wasn’t bluffing.
University of South Florida has already Falling behind in one key area: conference adjustments.
Weatherford did not mention Cincinnati, Houston or rival UCF by name during Tuesday’s board meeting. But he did mention “other institutions investing in sports infrastructure that have the opportunity to move into other conferences…” The Bearcats, Cougars and Knights will leave USF’s conference AAC to join the more prestigious and lucrative Big Five League, Big 12, July 1.
That begs the obvious, $340 million question: How much will the 35,000-seat campus stadium approved on Tuesday help the Bulls in their next round of league adjustments?
“As a university, the momentum we have has to be attractive to anybody,” athletic director Michael Kelly said.
Since January, USF has:
• Official opening of a $22 million indoor training facility. In addition to protecting players from storms and extreme heat, it also helped the Bulls host 4,000 high school campers this past week.
• Received an invitation from the Association of American Universities (AAU), which consists of 71 top research institutions. Conference membership decisions are made by the president, not the athletic director, so academic prestige resonates. AAU membership has actually been considered a prerequisite for Big Ten conference consideration.
• Approved the initial budget for the opening of the stadium north of the football practice facility for the 2026 season. The building will also house soccer and women’s lacrosse operations centers.
“Obviously, we want to be the dominant leader in America (the Games), and we’ve got that in some areas and we haven’t in others,” Kelly said. “It’s going to help us do that and be more competitive, but attractive to anyone else who is looking for a partner.”
So, who might be looking?
Big 12 is the most obvious choice. It has been open about its desire to expand its reach across the country. Colorado State, Arizona State and UConn are potential targets, and there have been conflicting reports recently about the league’s interest in another AAC school, Memphis.
Two of the Big 12’s three newcomers from the AAC have relatively new intramural stadiums: UCF opened what is now known as FBC Mortgage Stadium in 2007, and Houston started playing at TDECU Stadium seven years later. Another is Cincinnati, which completed an $86 million expansion and renovation of Nippert Stadium in 2015.
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San Diego State isn’t in the power conference yet — it’s still in the mountains of the Midwest — but is expected to get a Pac-12 or Big 12 invite soon, possibly by the end of the month. Its $310 million stadium, which opened last year, is one of its main selling points.
“Those who have done (stadium projects) over the last 15 years or so have shown the ability to succeed — most recently San Diego State University being a relevant factor,” Kelly said. “Obviously, in my view, we are an AAU institution and A bigger market, which makes you more attractive.”
The Big 12 didn’t specifically mention UCF’s stadium when they celebrated the Cavaliers’ addition in September 2021. But then-commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the meeting focused on “the schools that we thought were going to push football for us first…” While facilities don’t do it themselves, they help. After years of inaction, USF’s infrastructure upgrades are gaining national attention.
“How well we’re going right now…” Kelly said. “It’s a great time to run with the Bulls.”
All they need is a running mate.
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