The voice of USF Athletics, Jim Louk, will routinely put down his radio headset and pick up the pen to share his perspective on the history of USF Athletics.
Louk has been broadcasting games for 27 years and is the resident historian in the Athletics Department hallways ... This week he remembers the O.G. from the 1996 USF football team.
Remembering the O.G.
USF football practices started in 1996. Sometime while I wasn’t paying attention, that became a long time ago.
I remember attending the very first practice with a co-worker and saying something profound like, “we are watching a lot of young men we aren’t going to be watching for long.”
Then I told him the internet wouldn’t catch on.
Anyway, I was right about the football players. Many of those 1996 practice players fell by the wayside long before the team first took the field in the fall of 1997. Looking back at those early team practice videos, it’s pretty challenging to find familiar or even vaguely remembered faces among the players.
But all of those players, including the ones who never made it out of practice and on to the playing field, have their places in USF football history. They contributed.
This, however, is the story of a group of players who did more than contribute. This is the story of 14 men who ran the table of early program USF football eligibility, sticking with the infant program through every question, every hardship, every delay and every disappointment. They are the only 14 who made it from the initial practice in February 1996 all the way through to the last game of the 2000 season.
They called themselves the O.G.
The Original Group.
Maybe not the most creative name, but it is a little catchier than the “Founding Father Recruiting Class”, which is how they were described in the 2001 media guide.
We don’t often consider USF’s 59-0 win over Austin Peay on November 18, 2000 as one of the landmark games in Bulls football. It was a seemingly nondescript game – the 44th in team history, right at the end of the program’s fourth season. The highlight of the day was Bill Gramatica’s 63 yard field goal.
The game was noteworthy though for marking the last appearance of the core of Bulls who remained from day one of the program. Those 14 men had been through it all. Each had experienced a year of practice with no games, followed by a 25-19 mark in four seasons of football, including that now legendary 80-3 demolition of Kentucky Wesleyan in the inaugural game.
How many of the 14 can you name? Their positions varied, as did their playing time and their amount of time in the highlight reels.
I’ll spot you Anthony Henry because you probably had him already. One of the first Bulls to be drafted, he has to date the longest NFL career (nine seasons) of any USF alum. He’s a member of the 2011 USF Hall of Fame class.
How about Ryan Benjamin? Long snapper. Never hear about those guys after graduation. Well, maybe you do when they make the NFL. And especially when they win a Super Bowl ring, which Benjamin did with the Bucs in 2002.
Offensive lineman Joe Sipp never missed a game or a start in his USF career. He has coached football and track at Hillsborough High and is the reigning Hillsborough County boys track coach of the year.
There were two iconic running backs in the group. Rafael Williams, now a high school coach in Dallas, scored the first touchdown in USF history in 1997. Otis Dixon’s bruising runs were highlights for Bulls fans in the early days.
How about Charlie Jackson? The diminutive receiver who wore No. 1 was the first Bull to touch the football in a game when he returned the opening kickoff on September 6, 1997. He also was on the receiving end of a memorable play a year earlier; the long scoring pass on the first play of the Bulls first public scrimmage. Roy Manns joined Henry in a speedy and athletic Bulls secondary and made 76 tackles in his senior season.
Linebackers Vassay Marc and Marshall Smith helped establish the USF tradition of hard hitting linebackers that continues to this day.
Cory Porter and Leon Matthews were part of the wide receiver corps.
Edwin Greene, Shawn Hay and Steve Hatley (l-r) were key members of the defense.
Many cite the infamous “season without games” in 1996 as the bond that forged a special closeness throughout the group.
“A lot of times the defense hangs with the defense and the offense hangs with the offense; there is some separation. We were unique, mainly because of what we went through that first year,’ recalls Smith.
“It was a tough, grueling year with nothing to look forward to,” says Sipp. “But it brought all of us together.”
“The toughest thing was the scrimmages and practices, always against the same guys,” Anthony Henry says. “That’s why we put it on Kentucky Wesleyan so bad. We were so ready to play someone else.”
Joe Sipp agrees. “That could have been any opponent. We were so tired of going against ourselves. It just didn’t matter who the other team was that day.”
Each year at the last home game of the season, the Bulls send off their veteran players on senior day. Each year it’s a great class, filled with interesting stories.
However none of the senior classes has had quite the unique history of the class of 2000. The O.G. was just part of it; there were 25 players comprising one of the largest groups of seniors in USF football history.
But because of the O.G., history really did pass before our eyes at that game back in 2000. The last links to the beginning of the program moved on. From that moment forward, no Bulls football player would have quite the same USF experience as the 14 men of the O.G.
The willingness to take a chance on a brand new program was a common thread running through the O.G., and it’s hard to find any second thoughts among them.
Henry sums it up simply. “It was a blessing to play college football.”
“Every time I watch a USF game I think about the original Bulls,” says Sipp. “To be a part of that foundation holds a special place in my heart.”
“No regrets,” says Smith. “Never. It was a chance to put your mark on the history of the program. The whole process was remarkable.”
And so were these building blocks of USF Football, the men who made up the Original Group.
Be sure to follow the Voice of the Bulls, Jim Louk, on Twitter at @USFjimlouk