FloTrack Featured

The Arrival Of South Florida On The National Stage Has Been A Moonshot

The Arrival Of South Florida On The National Stage Has Been A Moonshot

The University of South Florida's men's team may be at an inflection point, as the men's team successes are elevating its status among the NCAA's elite.

May 29, 2024 by Cory Mull
The Arrival Of South Florida On The National Stage Has Been A Moonshot

On a recent Friday in Tampa, Florida, Erik Jenkins was a man in motion. 

The morning began on the campus of the University of South Florida, with training buzzing around the Track and Field Stadium as athletes readied for the NCAA East Regional in Lexington, Kentucky.

The men's team, fresh off their American Athletic Conference outdoor championship with a school record 217 points just five days earlier, were planning on sending 22 athletes to regions. 

Then it was indoors -- or maybe outdoors? -- for a quick phone interview with a reporter. Jenkins took the call just briefly before he ended an interval set and was heard instructing, "Run past the line!" 

From there, he would make the 3-hour trip up north to Jacksonville to the Florida High School Athletic Association Outdoor Championships, where he would recruit some of the top high school talents in the state. 

"I don't know about anybody else," said Jenkins, the Director of Track and Field who was hired by South Florida in 2019 from Western Kentucky. "But I'm constantly moving. I'm trying to find ways to get better." 

For Jenkins, this was a state-of-being, a belief that if you're not growing your dying. While analytics are important, he also believed that understanding talent on the track was more than that. A great coach needs to see it for himself.  

"It's great to see film and look at numbers," he said. "It's nothing like seeing somebody when the bright lights are on. I want to continue to evaluate people who will be Bulls in the future." 

Jenkins' hands-on approach has succeeded in a big way for the Bulls, who will send five men to the NCAA Championships next week in Eugene, Oregon and two sprint relays -- the 4x100 and 4x400 -- along with a women's 4x400 team. In total, the Bulls qualified for NCAAs in nine events across genders and broke a series of program records in the process. 

The South Florida men are currently ranked No. 10 nationally and could improve on their 25th-place team finish at NCAAs year ago -- a result which tied the program's highest ever NCAA team performance in 1993. With two sprint relays qualified, the USF could strike while the iron is hot.

Jenkins has been the man in the center of it all. 

"He's a model coach in my opinion for the modern college experience," said South Florida Vice President for Athletics Michael Kelly, who hired Jenkins in 2019 just a year into his own tenure. "He finds the right mix of detail, accountability, expectations and demand from those student athletes." 

Of course, these results in May were no well-kept secret. 

The origins of South Florida's emergence began in January as the indoor season debuted and then marched ahead when the Bulls won their first AAC title in program history, scoring 156 points. While USF only scored one point at NCAAs -- Saminu Abdul-Rahseed's eighth-place finish in the 60m -- it echoed a stronger point: That the Bulls were racing toward the national stage and were actively building depth.

That point was no better served than at the Penn Relays, where the men claimed two Championship of America titles in the 4x100 and 4x200, clocking times of 39.34 and 1:22.08, the latter still standing as an NCAA No. 3 performance on the season.

South Florida's men are largely led by a contingent of international recruits: Abdul-Rasheed is from a small village in Ghana; Shevioe Reid and Devontie Archer hail from Kingston, Jamaica and attended vaunted prep programs Calabar and Excelsior; Jaleel Croal is from the British Virgin Islands; and the team's lone field qualifier Goodness Iredia is from Nigeria. 

But that isn't to say the roster is void of American talents. Jenkins has filled his roster with a strong list of Floridians, including pole vaulter Kobe Babin, sprinter Aidan Dixon and hurdler Markel Jones

Like any good director of a track and field, Jenkins' recruiting pipeline has extended beyond the state. He utilizes the transfer portal and is actively trying to recruit some of the country's best athletes.

"I don't know about anybody else. But I'm constantly moving. I'm trying to find ways to get better."

But other parts of South Florida's emergence through the NCAA track and field ranks are due to other factors. 

You could argue Kelly's influence has been the biggest one. The former Chief Operating Officer for the College Football Playoff came to South Florida with a vision built around infrastructure. 

His first mission was to hire the right candidate. 

"We had not been performing well," Kelly said. "We were in the lower half of the league and we had aspirations for all of our programs at USF. When we searched, there were a lot of great candidates." 

Kelly scoured the market, looking at successful high school coaches, associate head coaches at other programs. Then came the aha moment. Jenkins was a gem inside a small market, a 21-time Coach of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference, a consistently successful leader at Western Kentucky. He was also a native of Quincy, Florida, which was a four-hour slingshot north through the panhandle of the state. 


Unlock this video, live events, and more with a subscription!

Sign Up

Already a subscriber? Log In

Kelly presented a vision that included trust and investment, a plan to help him build the ideal program in a red-hot state for track and field like Florida. "Getting a chance to speak with Erik," Kelly said, "I was impressed with what he said he may be able to do with a greater injection into the program. I had a high level of confidence that he would be successful." 

Jenkins' track and field budget at Western Kentucky was set to be cut by 50 percent the following year. He called around with contacts he knew that had worked at South Florida previously -- Jenkins wouldn't give names, but for reference, former South Florida coach Willie Taggart, who led the Bulls to a 10-2 record in 2016, was a former head coach at Western Kentucky -- and realized from those conversations that the university's sports program were a sleeping giant.  

"They had good things to say," Jenkins said. 

While USF had struggled in recent years within the track program, he saw immense promise, both from the region and at a school which was a high-performing -- South Florida was recently named into the Association of American Universities, which is a group of less than 100 research universities across the U.S. 

"We assessed the situation," he said. "My assessment was going out and hiring quality individuals who had done it in quality places. They were patient enough to figure out that it would work here." 

However, success didn't happen overnight. When Jenkins arrived in 2019, his vision was interrupted by COVID in 2020. 

"(Our timeline) got pushed way back," he said. 

By 2022, however, South Florida was beginning to shape an identity. With the right resources, South Florida began competing in some of the season's biggest meets: the Florida Relays, the Mt. SAC Relays and Penn Relays. 

The Bulls have also held two home meets at their facility: The USF Bulls Alumni Invitational and the South Florida Invitational, which brought in NCAA Division I teams like Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Iowa. 

Kelly's influence within the athletic department, meanwhile, was critical in building the future of South Florida across its campus. 

A three-phase plan for USF's Track and Field Stadium was passed and included a resurfacing, new locker rooms and a new press box and video board; the first phase is already complete and saw improvements to the concourse and bathrooms.

Meanwhile, the university is building a $340 million dollar football stadium on campus, nestled adjacent to the track and field facility. 

In 2023, Romaine Beckford won the program's first national title in the high jump with a leap of 7 feet, 5.25 inches, boosting the Bulls' team performance with 10 points -- good enough for 25th-place at the meet. 

While Beckford has since transferred to Arkansas, the Bulls have continued in their trajectory. Under Jenkins, a number of school records have been surpassed across the board -- Abdul-Rasheed, Reid, Iredia and Gabriel Moronta have all claimed spots on that list in 2024. 

Both sprint relays have moonshot past the previous best marks, too. 

But the execution of his long-term plan requires constant movement. 

"We want to keep climbing," Jenkins said. "Our expectation is to take advantage of every opportunity and execute to the best of our ability in that moment." 

He added. "We want to put ourselves in a position to fight what we work hard for. That's our focus. We don't get ahead of ourselves. We take it one meet at a time." 

Maybe the transfer of Beckford was also a realization, that all great programs will see churn in the modern state of the NCAA. 

One star out, one star in? 

Abdul-Rasheed, who has run season-best wind-legal times of 10.03 and 20.34 seconds, has qualified for both the 100m and 200m at NCAAs. Jenkins believes he could even potentially run for Ghana at the Olympics -- Abdul-Rasheed, however, is 0.03 seconds shy of the Olympic standard in the 100m and 0.16 away in the 200m.

Jenkins knows he can only rely on his way of doing things. 

"I'm not military," he said. "My parents, my grandfather and my immediate family, they were people of service. Some of it was military. Other parts of it was a service to community. 

"To me, if you say something, you'll do it. If you say you're doing a job, you do it to the best of your ability. If you can't, you don't. There won't be any shortcuts." 

Jenkins is honest with his athletes. He's real, sometimes blunt. 

But in order to get where he wants the Bulls do to, that's what it will take, he says. 

"We realize we have a long way to go as a program," he said. "We're not doing this just to be happy with two championships this year and a top 15 rankings and all that stuff. That's great ...but we also know we want to prepare for another day down the road." 

Get More Track And XC News At MileSplit

Don't miss any high school track and field coverage throughout the season from our partners at MileSplit.

FloTrack Archived Footage

Video footage from each event will be archived and stored in a video library for FloTrack subscribers to watch for the duration of their subscriptions.

Join The Track & Field Conversation On Social