Last December, within the living room of his Knoxville home, Alex Golesh accepted the job to be South Florida’s head football coach. He and USF officials celebrated by breezing over the Bulls’ 2023 football schedule.
He’d start his tenure with a trip to Western Kentucky. He’d open at home against Florida A&M.
And then there’s Week 3: Alabama, at home.
“You get Bama Week 3!” Golesh said, remembering the conversation from USF administrators. “Just beat ’em! Shouldn’t be an issue!”
Ten months later, now days away from the showdown with the 10th-ranked Crimson Tide, the story makes him chuckle.
“Look,” he said, “it’s what you want. In Year 1, they are all a measuring stick for where you are. That’s at least what I’m telling myself.”
During a lackluster Week 3 slate of college football, South Florida’s game against Alabama is an intriguing matchup, if only because it presents a peculiar sight: the Alabama Crimson Tide and head coach Nick Saban playing a non-Power Five road game.
That has not happened in 20 years. The Tide ended the 2003 season with a game at Hawaii in a cleverly devised matchup during a year in which Bama endured a bowl ban for past NCAA violations. Saturday’s affair is the first of a three-game series that the two athletic directors, Alabama’s Greg Byrne and USF’s Michael Kelly, struck four years ago. In a two-for-one scheduling deal, Alabama plays one game at USF (2023) and USF plays two games at Alabama (2024 and 2026).
Of the more than 1,500 FBS games scheduled this year, only 20 feature a Power Five program visiting a Group of Five, according to data from FBschedules.com.
It’s even more unusual when a powerhouse program plays at a G5’s home field. Using athletic department revenue figures from last year, the 10 richest football programs have played a total of four such games over the previous decade. Two of those came in NFL stadiums: Penn State at Temple (2015) and Florida at South Florida (2021).
Playing at an NFL venue is an attractive option and a significant reason why the Tide are playing in Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, said Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne.
It’s far from the only reason.
USF’s location in Tampa is in the heart of one of the country’s most talent-rich states — a recruiting boon for Saban. It’s a draw for fans as well.
“It gives our Gulf Coast fans an easier way to get to one of our games,” Byrne said.
It works financially, too. As part of the agreement, Alabama will pay USF $1 million to travel to Tuscaloosa in 2026. That’s a discount rate for the normal game against a G5 opponent, which can range from $1.5-2 million.
Since Alabama visits this year, USF sees that as a fair trade.
“To have them here, it means a lot to us,” Kelly said. “It means a lot to our student-athletes, coaches, to our ticket sales and to the city.”
As of Tuesday, USF had about 4,000 tickets remaining, Kelly said. Raymond James Stadium seats about 69,000.
At a USF home game, the school doesn’t seat the 25,000-seat upper decks, keeping everyone in the 40,000-seat lower bowl. That’ll change Saturday. The school plans to staff the game as if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are playing. The entire stadium will be open, meaning roughly 40-50% more security, concession workers and ushers.
This is nothing new for the Bulls. They have several Power Five programs scheduled in future seasons. Miami plays in Tampa next year, Louisville visits Raymond James in 2027 and Notre Dame has agreed to play at USF in 2029.
For Golesh, the game against Alabama provides a spotlight — nationally televised on ABC — for a program he hopes to rebuild into the consistent winner it was two decades ago.
The offensive coordinator at Tennessee the last two seasons, Golesh is the school’s fifth coach in a decade. Most of them have failed to replicate the consistency of Jim Leavitt, who helped start the program in 1997 and won 95 games in 13 seasons. Skip Holtz bottomed out with a three-win season in his third year, Willie Taggart won 10 games in Year 4 before leaving for Oregon, Charlie Strong’s program slowly declined and Jeff Scott never won more than two games in three seasons.
Residing in a talent-rich, football-crazed state and in a large population center, the struggles are staggering. The latest doldrums — five wins in their last 34 games — was poorly timed. Despite their location, power leagues passed over the Bulls in the latest conference realignment wave while the Big 12 invited neighbor UCF.
But things are on the mend in Tampa, Golesh said. He’s brought in 39 new players and has implemented the breakneck offense that helped quarterback Hendon Hooker pilot the country’s top scoring unit last season at Tennessee. That included posting 52 points against Alabama in a wild victory in Knoxville last October.
However, his talent at USF is, er, different.
“Well, we aren’t quite as explosive as Tennessee,” he acknowledged. “Not as deep on the O-line. And you are playing a team that player for player is going to be better than you.”
Golesh is an interesting story himself.
He was born in Moscow, Russia, and is the son of Russian immigrants who fled the country when he was seven. “You see what’s going on the last two years there,” he said of Russia’s war against Ukraine. “You can only imagine back then.”
The family arrived in New York with about $400 and a few suitcases and later moved to Ohio, where Alex got his start in coaching despite not playing college ball.
Golesh, 39, began in the high school ranks before he reached out to Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio for advice on how to crack into the college game. Dantonio connected Golesh with then-Ohio State defensive assistant Jim Heacock. Before he knew it, Golesh was a student assistant for Jim Tressel at Ohio State, then joined Tim Beckman at Toledo and Illinois, was a recruiting coordinator for Matt Campbell at Iowa State and finally with Josh Heupel at UCF and then Tennessee.
Under Heupel, he took off as one of the country’s most prolific play-callers and he continues to call plays as head coach at South Florida. In fact, his routine hasn’t changed all that much. Longer days and more problems as head coach, sure. But Golesh still calls as many as nine mock games each game week, starting Thursday and running into game day.
During the mock games, he calls his offense aloud while watching past games of the upcoming opponent. Staring back at him this week is Saban’s defense. He’s seen it before.
“Their offense is different. New quarterback and play-caller,” he said. “But the defense is the same, maybe more aggressive.”
It’s a big game for the Bulls (1-1) for a variety of reasons. Yes, the exposure. Sure, the extra revenue won’t hurt.
But for Golesh, this game is about adversity and overcoming it.
“How we respond to whatever happens will lay the foundation for what we’ll do here,” Golesh said. “I fully expect to have every chance to win the game. They will fight. That’s the thing about these kids, they will play their asses off.”