ST. PETERSBURG — One year ago today, Will Weatherford used the groundbreaking ceremony for USF’s indoor practice facility to set the stage for another one: the Bulls’ on-campus football stadium.
“I am here to tell you that we will do it,” proclaimed the president of the USF board of directors.
If you were, or still are, skeptical about a stadium, that’s fair enough. USF has been discussing the idea for its entire existence, and a handful of proposals have stalled for decades.
So why will this initiative finally move the Bulls from Raymond James Stadium to campus?
“Because failure is not an option here,” Weatherford said Tuesday.
And it’s not an option, because Weatherford won’t allow it.
A former football player at Land O’ Lakes High and Jacksonville University, Weatherford has always seen the value in playing on campus. When Governor Ron DeSantis named him to the USF board in January 2021, Weatherford decided to push for a stadium if he ever became president. He was elected to that position five months later and began calling his predecessors to understand the problem.
“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything,” Weatherford said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “Turns out he wasn’t.”
Previous failures came down to conviction and cost.
Weatherford took care of the first part quickly. He made the stadium his number 2 goal, behind student success and achievement.
The other influential USF agents joined in. In a self-assessment submitted Tuesday, board members cited “starting work on the stadium” as something they aim to accomplish in the next two years.
The board listed progressing the stadium as one of Rhea Law’s goals when she was interim president. On Tuesday, he approved “planning for a campus stadium” and assessing its feasibility as among Law’s presidential goals for 2022-23.
“Rhea knows that getting this project done is a big part of her job,” Weatherford said.
That understanding did not exist in previous administrations. USF’s first president, John S. Allen, was always opposed to a stadium. Another former president, Betty Castor, once said that she was open to the idea if “someone wanted to give it to USF.” Explorations under Judy Genshaft failed, with Law’s predecessor Steve Currall calling it a “vision,” not a plan.
Now the Bulls have a plan. They know where they will build it (north of the practice fields) and how many people it will seat (35,000). The conviction is there.
What about the cost?
USF has not published a budget or plan to pay for it. The next update, a contract finalized with the design/build team at Barton Malow and Populous in the coming weeks, will include design costs but not build costs.
It will be expensive, Weatherford said. But if they wait another decade?
“It’s going to be more expensive,” Weatherford said.
The ongoing financial discussions will intensify in the next six months, shortly after the Barton Malow/Populous deal is approved. USF is more open to the idea of borrowing money than it has been. Weatherford said the stadium’s revenue sources, such as concessions, will help pay off the debt. That model has worked at Colorado State, which opened its $220 million Canvas Stadium in 2017.
“We’re going to have donors and supporters and season ticket holders and suite buyers and all that stuff,” Weatherford said. “But we are also going to be very creative and look for unique solutions.”
Weatherford’s push comes during one of the most transformative moments in college sports history. The College Football Playoff will expand from four teams to 12 by 2026. The conference realignment remains unresolved. Weatherford said those forces created “an additional incentive” to work toward an opening date of the 26th, but were not the driving factor.
However, they raise a legitimate concern in the fan base: What if it’s too late? What if the Bulls stay out of the super conferences and spend nine figures on a stadium to host uninspiring teams like Rice or Charlotte?
“Either we’re going to be in the game, or we’re not going to be in the game,” Weatherford said. “We chose to be in the game. Therefore, we have to be able to compete. To compete you have to be willing to spend the necessary resources. It is to speak it so that it exists”.
Weatherford did just that a year ago when he called the stadium “an idea whose time has come.”
That moment is closer now than ever. The Bulls accomplished more in the last 12 months than in the previous six decades.
No, the Bulls don’t have all the answers yet. But the conviction is there to find them and the money needed to make this long-awaited vision a reality. Because the other option, failure, is not something Weatherford is willing to consider.
“We are not going to back down…” he said. “We have to figure it out. We will resolve it.”
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