USF is building a $340M on-campus football stadium despite concerns academics are being left behind

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — When the University of South Florida kicked off its first football season in 1997, the program's offices were headquartered in a glorified trailer on campus known as the “Ponderosa.” Back then, the Bulls played their games miles away in Tampa Stadium, affectionately called the “Sombrero” for its curved shape.

That stadium is long gone and since 1998 USF has played at cavernous Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and host of three Super Bowls. They've drawn some big crowds for major opponents but often struggle to fill even half the 75,000 seats. The school also has no control over such revenue streams as parking and concessions.

Everything will change in 2026, when USF opens a $340 million, 35,000-seat stadium of its own on the eastern edge of the Tampa campus, university officials say. It'll be easier for students to access, become a focal point for alumni and school benefactors, improve football recruitment and possibly propel the Bulls into a major conference, they say.

“We just completed our 26th year of playing football,” Athletic Director Michael Kelly said in an interview. “It's just the right time and stage in our evolution.”

Yet there are some doubts about financing the stadium with a $200 million loan and a variety of other sources that school officials point out do not rely on taxpayer dollar. These include: $50 million in advances from future capital gifts, $31 million from the school’s Capital Improvement Trust Fund, $34 million in proceeds from a 2017 FCC auction and an estimated $20-$24 million from the sale of educational broadband service licenses.

Some faculty and students — noting that USF just became a member of the academically prestigious Association of American Universities — wonder if the money might be better spent on academics and other needs.

“It's a huge endeavor. We build buildings without something like this. And so the funds being diverted from other academic sources are very concerning to us,” said Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, a literacy studies professor who is president of the Faculty Senate and voted against the debt plan at a June meeting.

Recent USF graduate Ben Braver said he's a huge Bulls football fan and attended every game possible. Like many other students — USF has about 50,000 on three campuses — he said the new stadium sounds good but the amount of money being spent gives him pause.

“I would have loved to have had a stadium when I went to USF,” Braver said in an interview. “But we need more investment in student life and less investment in stadium life.”

Still, Florida is a state where football is king. The University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Miami, which is private, have all won multiple national championships. The University of Central Florida in Orlando, the Interstate 4 rival of USF that is an even newer school, went undefeated in the 2017-18 season.

During its relatively short existence, USF's football team has had some banner years, with an overall record of 161-148 and appearances in 10 bowl games, winning six of them. At one point, the Bulls won 21 straight home games. They're currently a member of the American Athletic Conference, losing their opener on the road 41-24 last Saturday at Western Kentucky and have a home date with Alabama later this season.

Recent years, though, have been rather lean: USF has a 4-29 record in its last three seasons. School officials have watched as UCF surpassed them in football on-field success and this year begins play in the Power 5 Big 12 Conference.

And UCF has an on-campus stadium known as the “Bounce House.” USF officials say it's a worthwhile investment for them as well.

“I think when you look at any of the top universities around student experience, it's about academics first and foremost. We've done a really good job of investing significantly in our academic side of the equation,” said Richard Sobieray, USF's chief financial officer. “Now, it's time for us to do the same thing for our athletics.”

The Bulls have a new head coach, Alex Golesh, most recently offensive coordinator and tight ends coach for a resurgent University of Tennessee team. He said in an interview there's no doubt the stadium plan helps with player recruitment.

“It’s a commitment to this football program, to the athletic department, and a commitment to the university to kind of take it all in together. I think having a big-time college football program means you play football games on campus, means you bring alumni back to campus, you bring the students to campus, keep them on campus," Golesh said.

Donovan Jennings, a sixth-year offensive lineman, said he has enjoyed playing at the Buccaneers' stadium but an on-campus gridiron would be a major step forward.

“It means everything for our team,” Jennings said. “You know, it creates a great sense of energy and a great sense of morale among the team and the student body.”

Kelly, the athletic director, noted that it's 12 miles (19.31 kilometers) from USF's campus to Raymond James Stadium and there are other issues as well.

“It's an amazing facility, you know, but it's not ours,” Kelly said, noting the school gets nothing from such things as parking, premium seating and so forth. School officials estimate about $20.5 million in revenue will be generated the first year the on-campus stadium is in operation. “All those things that we don't benefit from in our relationship to James, we will now control those streams here.”

The planned location for the new stadium is at a spot known as Sycamore Fields, where the athletic department already has a state-of-the-art facility and indoor practice field. It's also where the “Ponderosa” once originally housed USF's fledgling football offices.

The contrast is not lost on Kelly, who noted that the women's lacrosse team will also use the new stadium.

“It's unique that we're placing the stadium on a piece of land where our very first practices took place 26 years ago,” Kelly said. “This is where the first drops of blood, sweat and tears for USF football were played. It's going to be our forever home.”