Monday, June 15, 2009

USF Basketball is Born, 6/12/69

On June 12, 1969, the University of South Florida took an important step towards becoming a major athletic power. University President John S. Allen announced that the school would play intercollegiate men's basketball in time for the 1970-71 season, pending approval by the State Board of Regents.

The USF athletic committee had submitted their request for Allen's approval on March 11. After determining that the program could be financed through a student service and athletic fee, Allen said that the school could begin building a basketball team.

"As our enrollment grows," Allen said, "our income from the activity and service fee grows, and we can now finance the addition of basketball to the list of intercollegiate sports."

USF had just completed its first season competing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The school fielded entries in baseball, men's and women's tennis, swimming, cross country, golf and soccer. It would take the addition of basketball, however, to begin legitimizing USF's athletic program. With an enrollment of nearly 14,000 heading into the 1969 fall semester, the school could no longer justify not being big enough to support a basketball team.

Still, USF could not and would not jump right into the deep end of college basketball at the beginning. Instead, the school would begin by fielding a freshman team. Games against junior colleges would follow, before eventually squaring off against other similar sized universities.

The journey to basketball began innocently enough in the early 1960s. A group of former high school basketball players created a non-sanctioned traveling team that played against other small schools and community colleges around the state. The day after a game against Manatee Community College, the final score made the newspaper and their identities were revealed. USF's administration found out and forced the group to cancel its remaining games.

Then in 1967, a student named Frank Winkles made bringing basketball to the school a priority while serving on the USF Senate.

Together with fellow student and future Student Body President Steve Anderson, they worked together to conduct a poll of USF students and faculty. Their poll determined that a majority were in favor of basketball and football programs.

"Our strategy was to make a presentation to the Board of Regents in a scholarly way," Winkles recalls. "We did a sophisticated polling and statistical analysis, and all the statistics and polling supported the desire for intercollegiate basketball at USF."

Winkles further led the charge by engaging Allen, as well as other regents, on this issue. Realizing that football was financially infeasible at the time -- and knowing Allen's long-standing opposition to football -- basketball became the primary focus of Winkles and other student leaders.

"Allen wanted to have what he called a 'scholastic' university," Winkles says. "There weren't going to be intercollegiate sports, especially football and basketball. He was very much opposed to them. We decided at the time that the most economically feasible sport to pursue would be basketball."

Opposition to an intercollegiate basketball program was not limited just to President Allen. Winkles remembers a humorous story of a university employee whose objection to basketball had nothing to do with financial concerns.

"There was a librarian on the athletic committee," he says. "His argument against voting for basketball was that the noise on campus would bother students who were trying to study."

It took some time, but eventually the group had their day in front of the university's athletic council. Despite Allen's protestations, the council approved the plan by an 8-4 margin on March 11.

The Board of Regents finally gave its approval for the basketball program in July, clearing the way for the hiring of the team's first coach and recruitment of its first players. Opening tip-off at Curtis Hixon Hall, after all, was just 510 short days away.

Today, Winkles believes that despite Allen's opposition to intercollegiate athletics, USF's first president would approve of the school's emerging role as both a research center and major player in college sports.

"Let's not forget, President Allen did some really admirable things in the beginning," he says. "He helped establish a very solid university that is well regarded today for its scholastics. I think he'd be very proud of USF today."

"But," Winkles adds," he still probably wish they didn't have intercollegiate athletics."

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