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Tampa Bay Times

How much will USF’s elite academic status help its Power Five pursuits?

By Joey Knight,

While USF athletic director Michael Kelly acknowledges the Bulls still have "a lot of athletic things that we have to meet," he says their resume for a possible Power Five invitation has been enhanced by the school's brand-new membership in one of the nation's most elite academic associations. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

TAMPA — For all its efforts to get a figurative foot in the Power Five’s door, USF still has come away limping. Poor football performance and slow infrastructure developments have conspired to hamper the Bulls’ efforts.

But they have another foot. And this one just might help the school cross that coveted threshhold.

Experts say the Bulls’ recent invitation to the Association of American Universities (AAU) — an honor bestowed upon fewer than 80 institutions nationally — carries major cachet with university presidents.

At last check, presidents determined which schools enter their respective athletic conferences.

“People don’t understand how important that really is,” said Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports senior vice president who now advises conferences and TV networks through his consulting firm. “There are some schools that can’t play in the Big Ten, that the Big Ten isn’t going to add them ever because of that. That’s really important.”

Coastal Carolina University president Michael Benson has published articles on the very subject and has written a biography of Daniel Coit Gilman, a founding member of the AAU. While not privy to the presidential deliberations inside a power-conference meeting, he said he firmly believes AAU membership is “a very strong consideration” when schools are considered for expansion.

“I was at Southern Utah when we finally got our 25-year wish of getting into the Big Sky Conference,” Benson said. “We had wanted forever to be in that conference, and my line was, ‘Getting into a conference is like getting married — you have to be asked.’

“All you can do is make yourself better, improve your academic reputation. And I would argue that ... the imprimatur of academic success, the gold standard for any research university, is the AAU. When I saw the list, I was like, ‘Good for USF. That’s fantastic.’”

USF became only the second public school in the state to be invited to the 71-member association of top-tier research institutions, joining the University of Florida. Invitations are extended based on many factors, including graduation rates, research activity, faculty excellence and the number of low-income students receiving federal Pell grants.

Meantime, college football remains in a staggering state of flux. While the Pac-12′s future remains in limbo until that league signs a new media-rights deal, the Big 12 has said it’s receptive to adding more teams. If the Big Ten ponders a move into the Florida market, consider: Each of its members (except Nebraska) are members of the AAU. That includes incoming members USC and UCLA.

“Obviously, there’s still a lot of athletic things that we have to meet,” USF athletic director Michael Kelly said. “But when presidents and conferences evaluate institutions, there’s a lot of things to consider. And now that you’ve reached this unique status, elite academic status, it certainly gets the attention of any president in the country that would be voting on (expansion).”

Grabbing the presidents’ attention is one thing. Sustaining it is another.

That’s where on-field success and ongoing infrastructure progress come into play. The Bulls haven’t had a winning football season since 2018 and have had one winning season in men’s basketball since 2012. Shore up those areas, break ground on the on-campus stadium, and the Bulls’ portfolio — already shimmering academically — elicits a real luster.

“I do think it comes down to building a competent program,” Crakes said. “If they can do that, they stand a really good chance of making it over the (expansion) wall. And they’ve got time to do that. I don’t expect that to happen tomorrow.”

Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report.

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