USF Conference Rivals Countdown: Part 2

Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

Today we meet one of the most polarizing figures in USF history.

Here's Part 2 of our ongoing look at all USF's conference rivals over the years. If you missed the introduction, here's Part 1. Remember, at the end there's a poll for you to vote in, about which of USF's American Athletic Conference opponents will be the most important rival.

35. Virginia Tech Hokies (1991-95, Metro)

Yes, USF fans, we were once in a conference with Virginia Tech. How that happened is part of USF's long and convoluted conference history, which we'll explore over the course of this series. For this installment, we're going to focus on the one thing USF fans associate with Virginia Tech: the basketball coach in the photograph above.

When Conference USA formed in 1996, USF looked just as outmatched as it did when it entered the Big East a decade later. Despite having occasional success under Bobby Paschal in the early 1990s, USF would be no match for the likes of Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, and several solid basketball programs that made up the league. To make matters worse, most of the USF roster quit during the 1995-96 season, and all-time great Chucky Atkins graduated.

Against this hopeless backdrop, USF hired Seth Greenberg away from Long Beach State. In his second season, USF won a surprising 17 games, and Greenberg added two Top 100 recruits from Florida: B.B. Waldon and Altron Jackson, who, along with Reggie Kohn, would be the face of the resurgent Bulls. Greenberg played an entertaining, up-tempo style, was quick with a quip, and had an underdog mentality that suited USF. The future looked bright.

But it never arrived. Greenberg was grossly outmatched as a bench coach, seemingly incapable of making strategic adjustments when his run-and-gun/1-3-1 zone trap scheme wasn't effective. His approach to lineups was to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, and then leave it hanging there until it falls off. Few players improved over the course of his tenure. Most of all, his teams lacked mental toughness. They constantly lost to the Cleveland States of the world, saying they didn't take them seriously enough, even though losing such games was an annual occurrence. They showed no ability to make a big play at key moments, on offense or defense. They never beat a Top 25 team, something even Robert McCullum managed (four times, actually, in fewer games).

By 2003, it was obvious that Greenberg had plateaued, and offered no real hope of breaking the school's long NCAA Tournament drought. Attendance fell. The quality of incoming recruits dropped, and they were more likely to be head cases. "NIT bubble" stories appeared in the local paper. Greenberg's personality became more prickly. Meanwhile, football had given USF a new, successful team to get behind, and was redefining what USF was capable of. Few fans still believed in Greenberg, but he wasn't bad enough to fire either, and his contract had been extended several years into the future.

On April 3, 2003, came the surprising news that Greenberg had been hired away by Virginia Tech. The response from USF fans was:

I had to resist the temptation to use that clip for the Bill McGillis news. Anyway:

Greenberg would coach Virginia Tech for nine years. He made one NCAA trip, in 2007 (and won a game), but mostly repeated his USF career. In the latter end of his tenure, he became famous as the butt monkey of the Selection Sunday show. Every year his teams barely missed the NCAAs, precisely because of the inconsistency, tactical shortcomings, and other mistakes from his USF days which he never corrected.

To this day, Greenberg elicits a surprising level of enmity from USF fans who remember his reign. Robert McCullum, whose teams lost by huge numbers and were boring as hell, elicits no such venom. USF fans can handle failure; we can't handle wasting the few chances at greatness that life gives us. Having said that, Greenberg unquestionably left USF basketball in much better shape than he found it, and still has his supporters.

As for actual sporting events between USF and Virginia Tech: there really aren't any. Other than conference games from 1991-95, they have rarely played in any sport. As for men's basketball, all those games were forgettable, because one or both of the teams was awful (usually both). During USF's 1992 NCAA at-large bid season, Virginia Tech was a last-place team, and neither of our games with them was at a key juncture in the schedule. We'll soon see an example of that.

LONGEVITY: 1. At four years, this is one of the USF's shortest intra-conference rivalries.

BIG GAMES: 0.

EMOTIONAL IMPACT: 1 1/2. And that is entirely third-party angst over Seth Greenberg.

FUTURE IMPORTANCE: 1. If you have a Division I-A football team, you get one point, due to the possibility of a future non-conference game, bowl game, or competing for recruits in the most important sport.

34. St. Louis Billikens (1995-2003 C-USA)

In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Big East basketball was the king of television. They had the prestigious 7 PM slot on Big Monday, the biggest of ESPN's weekly rotation of games. In this environment, attempts were made to create a midwestern version of the Big East: relevant basketball schools in large TV markets, perfect for a 9 PM time slot, with lesser games in regional syndication.

The most successful attempt to fill this niche was the short-lived Great Midwest Conference. It took Cincinnati and Memphis from the Metro Conference; UAB from the Sun Belt; St. Louis and Marquette from what's now called the Horizon League; and DePaul, previously an independent. (Independence in basketball was dying just as hard as it was in football.) They later added Dayton.

Like a start-up company angling to be bought by a larger competitor, merger talks began almost immediately. The first interested party was the Atlantic 10 Conference. The proposed merger would have created a league of Cincinnati, Memphis, Temple, then-national power UMass, football-playing schools West Virginia and Rutgers, and other big-city basketball programs like St. Joseph's and George Washington. That entity would have been an interesting player when the BCS era arrived, but the merger never came to fruition.

Next, the Great Midwest turned to the Metro Conference, which was already a mishmash of remnants of other leagues (including USF, which had just moved from the Sun Belt to the Metro in the hullabaloo). Not surprisingly, the football schools in those two leagues initiated the discussions. Both the Metro and Great Midwest were struggling to find meaningful games for their football schools. Metro member Virginia Tech wasn't involved in this; they had joined the Big East as a football-only member, and were angling for full membership in that league instead. (This was a tougher sell than it seems now; Tech had gone to only three bowl games between 1969 and 1992.)

Eventually, the Great Midwest and the Metro would merge, and add Houston from the dying Southwest Conference, to form Conference USA. And thus was born USF's intra-conference rivalry with the University of St. Louis, a Jesuit school 1000 miles away. Realignment makes strange bedfellows.

They were never in USF's division, which meant they'd only play USF once a year, and that was usually a low-stakes, late-season game. They were that school you could never remember any time you tried to list all the teams in the conference. I imagine we were the same to them.

However, there is one sport where USF and St. Louis have a little history: soccer. Both schools embraced soccer before it became popular in America. USF's first concession to big-time athletics was a men's soccer team, which began play in 1965; St. Louis built a national power from its home city, which was a soccer hotbed in the pre-NASL days. The two schools played most years, with SLU usually crushing the Bulls. (All-time record: 6 wins, 25 losses, 3 draws.) USF soccer has played SLU 34 times, second-most of any opponent -- even more than local schools like Stetson and Central Florida. (The most played opponent is Jacksonville.)

LONGEVITY: 3. The rivalry lasted eight seasons.

BIG GAMES: 1. USF's 1997 soccer team was one of the school's best ever, advancing to the NCAA Quarterfinals. St. Louis denied that team a Conference USA tournament championship, 3-1 in overtime, in Tampa.

EMOTIONAL IMPACT: 1. The lowest score.

FUTURE IMPORTANCE: 0.

33. Seton Hall Pirates (2005-13 Big East)

The USF fan base never embraced Big East basketball.

Yeah, football is the big enchilada, but surely regular visits from college basketball royalty -- Syracuse, Connecticut, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and so on -- should have been a great benefit to a struggling basketball program. It wasn't. Attendance was embarrassingly bad, except when the visiting team brought fans. Even the successful 2010 and 2012 seasons, and subsequent Sun Dome renovation, were slow to inspire ticket sales.

So a rivalry with Seton Hall never really had a chance. Our fans weren't much interested in basketball, and there weren't any other sports where the schools meaningfully competed. Seton Hall probably viewed USF as a random blip on the schedule, just another football-mandated intrusion into their once mighty and well-defined league. And since USF was terrible most years, there was little potential for meaningful games.

At the same time, Seton Hall's relative lack of success from 2005-13 was a virtue in this regard. They were one of the few Big East opponents where USF could reasonably hope for a win. And that hope was usually dashed, as USF went 2-10 against Seton Hall in the Big East era, including several torturous close or overtime losses. As such, they were sort of a junior Marquette - that one school who seemed to exist just to torment USF's few basketball fans. Here's some of the psychological trauma Seton Hall inflicted:

Janaury 20, 2006: USF threatened to win its first ever Big East basketball game, leading Seton Hall by 13 points with 6:42 left, in East Rutherford. Led by Jamar Nutter, Seton Hall rallied to tie with 14 seconds left. USF had a chance to win the game in regulation, but turned the ball over. Nutter dominated overtime, and Seton Hall won going away. USF would wait another six weeks to win its first Big East game, upsetting Georgetown in the season finale to escape an 0-18 season.

February 26, 2008: Seton Hall goes eight minutes without a basket and doesn't even relinquish an eight-point lead. Jesus Verdejo makes a clutch steal to give USF a chance to tie it, but Kentrell Gransberry misses both free throws. Seton Hall wins 79-77.

January 28, 2010: If Seton Hall is an analogue to Marquette, this is their 2009 game; the one where even victory is painful to watch.

This was USF's NIT season. The Bulls had piled up enough non-conference wins to have a shot at the postseason if they could win a few Big East games. The Seton Hall game was after Dominique Jones broke the school record with 46 points in an insane 109-105 win at Providence, but before the Y'ALL COME SEE DOMINIQUE JONES PLAY win at #7 Georgetown. Seton Hall was a key game if USF were to have a successful season.

Late in a see-saw game, freshman big man Toarlyn Fitzpatrick gave USF a 54-51 lead with an unlikely clutch three-pointer, duplicating a shot he made in the Providence game. USF couldn't put Seton Hall away in regulation: Seton Hall tied the game after a third offensive rebound, tied it again on a barely-contested three-pointer, and Chris Howard missed a layup. But Howard would hit a clutch Anthony Collins-esque floater in overtime to give USF a 75-73 lead. Herb Pope missed the second of two free throws, and USF held on to win 75-74. It was USF's first win over Seton Hall, and the first time in their five-year history that USF won consecutive Big East games. (The longest Big East winning streak USF would ever have was four, done twice in 2010 and once in 2012.)

January 13, 2012: USF's other win over the Hall. USF was fresh off a surprisingly easy win at Villanova, but there weren't yet any hints that this team was destined for greatness. Seton Hall was 15-2, had just moved into the Top 25, and wanted to show they were back on the national scene.

Seton Hall led 52-42 with six minutes to play, but the Bulls rallied in what would become their signature style: suffocating defense, strong rebounding, clutch shooting, crunch time free throws, different players stepping up in big moments, and Jawanza Poland missing a shot at the worst possible time.

USF erased the deficit on a Collins floater, a Poland three-pointer, a super-clutch three-point play by Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, and clinical free throw shooting. But Poland, a good free-throw shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Seton Hall a chance to win. Seton Hall's Jordon Theodore, an even better free throw shooter at 82%, missed his front end that would have tied it. Fitzpatrick grabbed the rebound and USF won 56-55.

(By the way, "Collins floater" would be a great name for a mixed drink at the bars near the Sun Dome after a home game. Somebody make this happen.)

This win would prove crucial, as both USF and Seton Hall found themselves clinging to the NCAA bubble when March rolled around. When the bracket was announced, USF squeaked into the field. Seton Hall didn't. This also started the momentum for what would become a unforgettable season.

March 12, 2013: By now, USF's relationship was the Big East was doomed. But relationships have to end sometimes, and when they do, you want to end them on a good note.

This game was not that.

USF followed up the dream 2012 season with a crushing return to their usual standards. When big man Waverly Austin never made it to campus, everyone had to play one position too big, which is death in the bruising Big East. USF won a couple games late to get to 3-15, and drew a winnable 12-13 Big East Tournament game against Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden.

For one night, it looked like USF might recapture some of that ol' 2012 magic. Wearing zany neon uniforms, the Bulls suffocated Seton Hall, allowing only 29 points over the first 37 minutes. The inept Bulls offense had only managed 37 points, but that lead seemed safe. Then out of nowhere, USF started turning the ball over and missing easy shots, and Fuquan Edwin hit a key three-pointer, and it went to overtime at 37-37. USF never put up a fight, and the Big East era ended with a whimper, 46-42. USF shot 24.2% from the field. If you want to relive the awfulness, here's the Game Thread, recap, and post-game commentary.

LONGEVITY: 3. As with St. Louis, It lasted eight seasons.

BIG GAMES: 2. It's basketball, and few of those games were for high stakes, but Seton Hall did give us a few memorable moments.

EMOTIONAL IMPACT: 1.

FUTURE IMPORTANCE: 0.


Next time on USF Conference Rivals Countdown: The football rival that never was. And don't forget to vote in our poll about USF's future rivals below:

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