CHAMPAIGN — Barring a catastrophe — make that another catastrophe — there was no way the University of South Florida was going to give up a chance to host Illinois on Friday night.
There’s simply too much at stake for the Bulls. They’ve had Friday’s game circled for a long time as a chance for their football program to shine while the rest of the nation is watching.
So there was no surprise Tuesday morning when the school announced the impact of Hurricane Irma would not change the site or start time of Friday’s game.
As planned, the game will kick off at 6 p.m. (CDT) at Raymond James Stadium with a national ESPN television audience tuning in.
Charlie Strong, head coach of the 22nd-ranked Bulls, knows this is a chance to parade his team in front of the country. So he said Tuesday he’s throwing open the doors to Raymond James Stadium.
“I’m going to invite every high school team across this state to this game,” he said. “Let them know they are invited. Also first responders and their families, they are also invited.
“Just invite everyone to the game. It’s not going to hurt us. At least it will get us a packed house in there. It’s all about giving back.”
Sure enough, not long after Strong issued his “come one, come all” invitation at his weekly news conference, South Florida posted on its athletic department website that complimentary admission would be extended to all first responders and high school football teams.
Strong said Tuesday his challenge was to have his team ready to go with just three days of practice. Campus was closed over the weekend with South Florida canceling its game at Connecticut.
The team did not practice Monday, but was scheduled to be on the practice field Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s almost like you are cramming for an exam,” said Strong, who was defensive coordinator for both Ron Zook and Urban Meyer at Florida, then head coach at Louisville and Texas before landing at South Florida.
“You have to hurry because you don’t have much time. But when we had the game with UConn canceled and we knew we were not playing, our coaches started looking at and studying Illinois and their first game. Then we got a chance to have the Western Kentucky tape, too.”
Led by dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers, South Florida is a heavy favorite despite Illinois’ 2-0 start.
The Bulls also are 2-0, having defeated San Jose State (42-22) and Stony Brook (31-17).
“It really is a national stage for us being a Friday night game,” Strong said. “That’s why I felt it was so important to invite all the high schools across the state. Some of their games will be canceled anyway,” due to the hurricane's aftermath.
“It’s good for this football team because we need that stage. It gives us a chance because we haven’t played well the first two games. We haven’t played a complete game yet. Now we can get locked in on this game and go play.”
Illini coach Lovie Smith, who has twice been a coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said he also is hoping high school players in the area attend Friday’s game — to see his team, not South Florida.
Illinois has made Florida a recruiting priority and seven of the 25 freshmen Illinois signed in the current recruiting class are from Florida.
“We have a lot of players from Florida and we recruit that area heavily,” Smith said.
He was asked about returning to Tampa, where he was head coach of the Bucs in 2013 and 2014 before being fired. But he pushed aside any sentiment and said this was all about trying to help Illinois reach 3-0.
“I’m just not one of those touchy-feely guys like that,” he said.