By DAVE SCHEIBER
A memorable scene unfolded at USF Sarasota-Manatee's winter commencement in
December 2015. After a stirring rendition of Pomp and Circumstance
, one very special circumstance stole the show.
It only took Bill Mariotti a few seconds to stride in his cap and gown
across the stage, embrace beaming university leaders and smile for the
camera. But in another sense, the brief walk took him three decades to
complete. Before Mariotti's name was even called, President Judy Genshaft
made sure everyone inside the Manatee Civic Center knew how amazing the
moment they were about to witness was - sharing the story of a man who had
just finished a most unusual journey to finally receive his diploma.
"Bill is accomplishing what he started more than 30 years ago - a dream of
earning his bachelor's degree," she told the audience, sparking a wave of
applause and cheers - an ovation repeated when the 55-year-old student
stepped into view as an official USF graduate.
The details of Mariotti's decision to interrupt his education five credits
shy of graduating in the early 1980s are just part of his unusual tale. But
the most remarkable aspect is what Mariotti has done to help USF on
multiple fronts since becoming a full-fledged alumnus, highlighted by a
recent transformational gift of $3.5 million to his alma mater.
The longtime Sarasota resident, who runs a site development company and
asphalt business, got his first hands-on feel for the business when he was
in his 20s. He worked part-time in his father's site development company
while tackling a full-time course load on USF's Tampa campus as a business
major. But all of that literally came crashing to a sudden stop during his
senior year. While working on a demolition site with his dad, also named
Bill, his father fell through a fiberglass skylight, breaking both his
ankles and legs. What easily could have been a fatal accident only required
surgery and a few months of rest. But life was about to change in a major
Mariotti was thrust into his father's role on the job, trying to juggle
both classwork and site work. "I'd go to class in Tampa in the morning,
then come home and go to work on a demolition project in Sarasota, but it
was just too much," he reflects. He made the difficult decision to leave
school and devote his full energy to running the business.
When his father eventually returned, Mariotti was so immersed in the
day-to-day operations that the notion of returning to school didn't
interest him. And the shock of his mother's passing in 1988 deepened his
resolve to help his father at the helm. By the time he turned 40, Mariotti
was calling the shots as president and CEO, with little time to reflect on
the degree he left behind.
But in recent years, friends — including longtime pal and USF alumnus Ted
Bogusz — suggested that Mariotti should complete his degree. At 53,
Mariotti took the plunge, enrolling in classes at USFSM in the summer of
He took only one class per semester to balance schoolwork and his business
responsibilities, plus he made time to get involved on campus. He became a
member of the Community Leadership Council, including local business
professionals, and took over as chair of the fundraising-focused Campaign
After 18 months, Mariotti finished the required classes and his long-faded
dream was suddenly a reality: walking in a USF graduation. It was a moment
to savor, tinged only with the regret that his parents had both passed away
by now. But his sister and a group of close friends, including Bogusz, were
there to cheer him on loudly.
"You know, it took a lot of guts to do what Bill did," Bogusz says. "When
he was struggling a little bit, he got a tutor. Watching him walk across
that stage, I almost cried. I've watched Bill grow through all of this and
I'm extremely proud of him."
Now, Bill is giving back and helping USF grow - in multiple directions. He
started off creating an endowed scholarship in Athletics to support women's
rowing, and then decided to make his impact felt with a gift across the USF
spectrum. His gift will benefit a multitude of areas including Business (at
both USFSM and USF Tampa), Athletics, Arts, USFSM Facilities and Sigma Nu
Today, Mariotti's life revolves around USF almost as much as the family
business that long ago pulled him away from the university.
On any given week, you can find him attending a USF event or meeting,
enjoying a game or concert, or staying involved with one committee or
another. When you miss out on 30 years, there are plenty of fulfilling ways
to make up for lost time. But these days, it's almost as if Bill Mariotti,
the man who turned back the clock to complete some unfinished business,
never left at all.