The most dramatic sporting moment I ever witnessed in person was in Memphis. After seeing the Bulls get eliminated from the semifinals of the 2005 C-USA Tournament the night before by the Tigers, I headed back to FedEx Forum to watch Louisville and Memphis took to the floor for the C-USA Championship at 11am on a Saturday morning. For Louisville it was about pride as they were already the regular season champions, and were headed to a fine seed in the NCAA's no matter the result. They ended up in the Final Four, and deservedly so.
But for Memphis it was a must win, as their terrible start to the season left them with only the conference tournament automatic bid available. It was a fantastic game with both teams trading 3's ad nauseum, multiple future NBA players on the court, and a raucous Tiger crowd going bananas. With Memphis down two as the clock expired, UM's Darius Washington Jr. got fouled by Francisco Garcia on a three point attempt. He'd get three free throws to send the Tigers to the NCAA's. Two to tie, three to win.
In the commotion of the end of the game, both teams huddled by their benches. I was sitting on the other side of the court, and could lip-read John Calipari saying to his star freshman point guard "we love you, Darius." You can judge Calipari as a coach however you'd like, but it was the perfect thing to say at that exact moment. "Hey, no matter what happens here, we're still your family." I've been to NBA Finals, World Series games, NCAA Tournaments, but the moments before Washington stepped to the line were unlike anything I've ever seen or felt in sports. In front of his fans, on his home floor, he had a chance to save the season. To win a championship. And it was all completely on him. I had no rooting interest for either team, and my heart was beating out of my chest.
With no one standing on the free throw blocks because a rebound wouldn't matter, Washington made the first. He then missed the second. And then he missed the third to lose the game, the championship, and the season. The collective shriek of unexpected horror from the arena was the same as if someone had just been decapitated at midcourt. Darius collapsed to the court completely inconsolable, and was in tears and a heap right on the spot where he had it all in his hands just a second before.
For USF fans, the addition of Memphis to the Big East as a full, football-playing member of the conference is like those final free throws of "The Darius Washington Game." We earned our way to the conference. We worked and grinded and sweat and bled for the chance to be here. We had it in our hands. It was completely on us, standing on that line, alone, with only our talents to carry us. And we blew it. We absolutely and totally blew it.
More after the jump:
When the Big East needed to expand the football footprint, getting a Florida presence made sense for many reasons. And if the decision was between USF and UCF, choosing the Bulls was even more logical. An NFL quality stadium, a fast track of growth the likes of which had never been seen by college football before, the 12th-largest media market, and what seemed a reservoir of unlimited potential were all great reasons to pick Tampa. When the pick was made, it certainly seemed on Fowler Avenue that there was an inevitability to long-term success. That with the final glass ceiling (BCS status) shattered, there would be no excuse for USF to not be nationally competitive in football soon.
After all, to that point absolutely nothing had stood in USF's way. Unrequited growth had been promised to all stakeholders, and to that point it had been delivered. You're not supposed to beat Top 25 teams on the road (Pitt) in your fifth year playing football games. You're not supposed to smash Top 10 teams at home in your first-ever conference game (Louisville). Granted, these were just wonderful, memorable nights, but it showed why all this hope and expectation was justified. Eventually USF should be able to recruit better, become more consistent. And once that "sleeping giant" wakes up, hoo boy, you better look out.
It never happened. And in fact, it's gotten worse. Since our first three years in the league (all 4-3 in the Big East), we are 9-19 in conference play. We got to the free throw line. We had the ball in our hands. And we failed.
You can talk about other sports or other successes we've had (though we would argue they've been slim), but the reality is that football is why we were extended a bid to the Big East in the first place. Football is also the train that drives the overwhelming majority of athletics revenue for our institution, and for major college sports in general. Succeeding on the football field, in a recruiting rich area like Tampa, with decent-if-not-outstanding resources and facilities, would have opened up so many more doors when the conference realignment we all knew was coming finally hit.
As soon as Texas A&M and Nebraska had enough crap from the Longhorns, we could have dictated more things to Providence, knowing that someone else would love to give us a home. And don't even mention the argument that our geography is this unyielding hindrance. Though the ACC was never an answer, if the Big XII was willing to go to Morgantown, they were willing to come to Tampa. Most likely, our being better would have made the Big East much stronger, and instead of having terms dictated to us, we could have been the ones doing the talking.
Instead of being the green-and-gold embodiment of "Happy To Be Here," we could have put pressure on Marinatto because we would have had leverage. We could have been proactive instead of reactive. We could have been one more reason why Pitt, Syracuse, and WVU would want to stay, since having us as a quality opponent annually would have been great for allparties. We could have helped make the Big East a destination conference, not the BCS version of Quadruple A. It's why we were offered the bid in the first place. But when all you do is look great occasionally instead of consistently, no one will want to commit to you long-term. We have become Team Butterface: Good from far, but far from good.
So who is to blame? The fans that gained a large sense of entitlement? Not sure about that, as they were promised great things. So we can't have them unexcited about this. The head coaching change? Don't think so either, as I think even the most ardent Jim Leavitt supporter can't argue that his teams were consistently inconsistent, and exempting the Mirage of 2007, never really showed any kind of top-flight class. I think we have to look higher than that. All levels of USF, from the administration building on down, are accountable here. I even defended them when this storm hit at first, thinking if anyone could guide us safely though these tough waters it was them. But they didn't, and that's because they had seven years of unseized opportunity in the rear view mirror.
When the brass ring is right by you, you must do everything within reason to grab it, and grab it right now. There is no reason to think this wasn't within reach. But seven years of vacillating between mediocrity and bad put the stake in our hearts. We're basically right back where we started. And it looks very unsure that we'll be in as strong a position again in the future.
Memphis was the 7 seed in that '05 C-USA Tournament. But they were at home, and it was right there for the taking. And they failed. Just like USF, who is now the equivalent of being collapsed in a heap, inconsolable. We knew we'd get to the mountain top someday. We just took too long, and the avalanche hit.