So, yyyyyyyyyyeah. Rivalry week. Woooo.
The South Florida Bulls fan base has historically been slow to embrace to the concept of a rivalry with UCF. Oh, sure, we took great joy in our previous victories, and enjoyed the schadenfreude of UCF's on-field failures and embarrassing incidents, as any rival would. Almost any USF fan, including ourselves, will tell you this weekend's game is the one they want to win the most. Just today, Willie Taggart said:
"I could tell when I first got the job the importance of it all. I mean, we weren't even playing yet, but you'd skip over the other games to talk about the Central Florida game, so you know the importance of it to our fans and our alumni."
Even so, we still don't really embrace the "War on I-4" as part of our lore. We treat it like a weird uncle, whom we have to invite to Thanksgiving dinner, but interact with as little as possible, then say mean things about after they're gone. I suspect this feeling is mutual.
How did it get this way? I studied the history of the USF-UCF rivalry to try and understand how it got to this point. And in doing so, I came to a realization:
Neither school really wants a rivalry with the other. They want to be in a better conference, bigger, and more important than the other.
Even in the beginning, when UCF clamored for a football game, they didn't really want a rivalry with USF. It was just a means to that end.
I know that theory sounds crazy, with as much noise as there was about USF's initial unwillingness to play the series. But if you look at what happened before and after that, you see how it fits into UCF's long-term aspiration to join an elite college sports conference. It goes back a generation:
''When basketball comes up a notch we can give a pretty good argument that we're as good as half the teams in the Metro. 'Given a few years to get that lined up, I think UCF would be a real plum to have in any conference.'' -- UCF Athletic Director Gene McDowell, July 27, 1988
The Metro Conference then consisted of Florida State, Louisville, Memphis State (as it was then known), Cincinnati, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Southern Mississippi. In the Metro's marquee sport of men's basketball, UCF was a bad Division I independent, and would lose two games to Florida State that season by a combined 87 points. They wouldn't even have a winning season until 1993-94 (more on that in a minute). Imagine the athletic director of UMass-Lowell calling his basketball team "as good as half the teams in the Big East" and needing to come up "a notch."
But this was no isolated remark:
''We are more inclined to be an independent for about five years, and then see if we are attractive to the SEC or ACC.'' -- UCF Athletic Director Steve Sloan, expressing disinterest in the Metro Conference-Great Midwest merger, July 22, 1994
"Letters, along with other information about UCF's transition from Division I-AA to Division I-A football in 1996, were sent by Athletic Director Steve Sloan to the commissioners of the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East Conference and the newly formed Conference USA. UCF became interested in Conference USA in recent months." -- Orlando Sentinel, August 8, 1995
UCF officials are about to launch a full-thrust marketing campaign, targeted at some of the nation's biggest conferences. They're focusing on the Big East Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference and Conference USA, hoping at least one will show interest. -- Orlando Sentinel, April 30, 2000
The late 1990s are full of similar proclamations from UCF officials... and zero mention of USF. The record does note that UCF offered USF a game in 1997, which was declined to little notice. Even the Orlando Sentinel said Jim Leavitt "probably wisely declined" this offer.
Note also that USF was party to the Metro-Great Midwest merger that would create Conference USA, a league in which UCF expressed disinterest in 1994. Even more bizarrely, it's the same Metro Conference McDowell imagined for UCF six years before, minus only Florida State and South Carolina. I guess once the 'Noles left, the league wasn't good enough for UCF anymore. They would remain in the bottom-rung TAAC/Atlantic Sun Conference until 2005.
The closest thing to any 20th Century USF-UCF rivalry I could find was an exciting UCF basketball win over Chucky Atkins-era USF in overtime. The game was described as "Knights step into big time"... "second-largest crowd in history"... "everything about the game was big"... "a steppingstone for our program"... "Hey, we beat a Metro Conference team - they play with the best"... "a game that felt exciting from the introductions"... and no use of the R-word.
In 2000, when USF football was about to move to Division I-A, UCF got really, really interested in scheduling a football game against USF. Like, way too interested. Like, on the doorstep with flowers and movie tickets waiting for us to turn 18. When Jim Leavitt and Lee Roy Selmon said "eh, we'll get back to you," UCF lost their minds.
At a statewide media day, UCF coach Mike Kruczek pretty much called Leavitt a coward to his face:
"They're now this Conference USA powerhouse. Leavitt made a statement they wanted to play more traditional opponents and not UCF. Really, what it comes down to is, conference teams don't step out of conference to get beat. When you schedule a non-conference game, what you're saying, without putting it in print, is we're playing teams we should beat." -- July 30, 2001
A former UCF student government president tried to pass a state law forcing USF to play the game:
"An amendment forcing an annual UCF-South Florida game was withdrawn from a significant education bill in Tallahassee, and protests from USF mean it likely won't find a home before lawmakers finish their annual business in Tallahassee."
Insufferable columnist Mike Bianchi took up UCF's cause. Now, we have a policy of not acknowledging any of his drivel, but it's necessary here to tell the whole story. Bianchi launches this broadside at the USF program, an article with so much snot that it would now be considered a chemical weapon. He took no fewer than six additional potshots of this type. Let's just say that comparisons to various types of fowl were made.
Why was this game such a big deal all of a sudden? Why couldn't they take "not right now" for an answer, when they did just three years before? Perhaps it had something to do with this aspect of UCF's afore-mentioned $40,000 marketing campaign:
"Part of [UCF's] marketing plan targeting C-USA cites the possible football rivalry between UCF and USF as a selling point. What would be better or more popular than having a Tampa-Orlando rivalry connected by just a short drive on I-4?"
Or this statement from another self-promotion entity, the hilariously vainglorious website thetimehascomeforucf.com:
"the state of Florida is prime for a natural rivalry between UCF and another in-state school."
UCF wasn't interested in some "rivalry." It was just part of their realignment sales pitch. A pitch they apparently didn't run by USF first. When USF had the audacity to act in their own interest rather than UCF's, they went a little overboard.
But of course, the game did get scheduled, not long after that in May 2003. Initially a two-game series, it was extended to four when Conference USA allowed USF to count the games towards their league exit requirements. To both parties, the UCF-USF rivalry was really just a by-product of self-interest.
Games are scheduled. Things get worse.
With the game finally in place, the sniping quieted down a bit... but restarted immediately when the first game arrived in 2005. George O'Leary took his potshots at the Big East, calling it no better than Conference USA, and pretending not to be aware of USF's membership in it. (While simultaneously complaining that Leavitt brought it up on the recruiting trail.)
Jim Leavitt preferred to damn with faint praise, calling the first meeting "a heck of a ball game for both teams," a phrase he also used to describe a game against Elon, or a little league game, or possibly a sandwich. He was also quick to remind the room who held membership in the prestigious BCS league, and who did not, which I'm sure rankled O'Leary.
The 2005 game was won easily by USF, 31-14, over a then-struggling UCF program. Shenanigans were limited to a late-game fake punt by the Bulls, and USF fans printing out "17" cards to honor the number of consecutive losses this made for UCF (and the margin of victory, as it turned out). It would be overshadowed by next week's game, the Amarri Jackson Game against Louisville.
In 2006, USF squeaked out a close win 24-17 against an improved UCF team in Orlando, though Bianchi managed to infuriate the always-infuriated Leavitt by calling the USF program "everything that is wrong with college football", among other things.
The lunacy peaked in 2007, when UCF fans harassed Matt Grothe on Facebook, Sentinel columnist David Whitley showed up on campus with two car flags attached to his head, and Leavitt blatantly ran up the score.
By this point, the personality of the rivalry had been set. In Voodoo Five's first attempt to analyze the whole UCF thing, chuckycrater put it this way:
Late in the game, the Bulls threw deep and hit a 75-yard touchdown pass, then added a 28-yard touchdown pass on 4th and 14. Leavitt was obviously running up the score and taking extra delight in rubbing their noses in it, as if every unnecessary touchdown was responding to a specific jab that UCF had taken during the week.
While it was fun to watch, it also proved that whatever grudge match exists between the two schools is more like a quicksand trap that both sides constantly sink into.
And we would all sink deeper into that trap, with the 2008 game involving death threats and other niceties. For a good example of "what both sides constantly sink into", see the discussion after this TBO piece on the game.
After USF won all four games pretty decisively, things quieted down for a couple years... and then the Big East collapsed.
And we all knew who was coming to dinner. We'd worked through the doomsday scenarios, and this was some kind of doomsday/sharknado/sandpaper combination. There would be no more cajoling for a series. It was now mandatory, and meaningful.
And as 2013 played out, stars aligned such that the long-suffering UCF couldn't possibly lose this time. Leavitt had to be let go as head coach, and the USF football team slowly cratered, while UCF somehow survived an NCAA investigation and a player death and put together a season of all the clutch plays they didn't get over the last fifteen years. They are now positioned to win the conference and automatic major-bowl bid in first and only attempt, while USF never got close in almost a decade of chances. The game is on UCF's campus, on ESPN, in Friday night prime time. All in the year Gene McDowell's major-conference dream of 1988 finally came true. (Well, kind of.) This Orlando redemption story is too perfect even for Disney.
If I've learned anything from all this, it's empathy towards our weird uncle. Hey, they just want to win, like we do. At times we've all gone too far -- we get "too full of Bama" as they say. But I can't imagine waiting 15 years to beat someone -- the USF bandwagon thinned out pretty fast after only three losing seasons. If UCF somehow loses again Friday night, I'll almost feel bad for them.