Yesterday, I got a text from my friend Candy. She is a UCF alum, as is her husband, Allen - one of my roommates in college. We have kept up with them and they are some of our best friends. While we lived in Orlando, we usually spent New Year's Eve with them at our house. Our move to Columbia seemed to end that tradition. Not so fast! They are going to be traveling for the holidays and will be staying with us over New Year's. In her text, she said, "Aren't you excited we will be there for the Fiesta Bowl?!?" I hadn't connected that. I've watched a ton of UCF games this year, all alone. The thought of having fellow UCF fans here? On New Year's Day? To watch UCF in a bowl game? Heck yes, I'm excited. Again, a perfectly sane exchange.
Rewind about 20 years. I had recently shed my lifelong love of the University of Georgia to firmly align with UCF. If I was going to spend thousands of dollars at a school to get a degree, I was going to get the most I could out of the experience. Student tickets to football games were free, so I went to most of the home games. We were small time football. There was a big battle on the campus between the academics who felt that a school should rely on its academic achievements alone and those who believe that a strong successful sports program enhances the school as a whole. The new university President, Dr Hitt, was trying to walk the fine line between sides while pushing what he knew was best - sports is a billboard for the school. UCF was going to transition to Division I and had to spend a couple years in I-AA. So our schedule was made up of teams like Garner-Webb and Bethune-Cookman. We envied powerhouse schools like Georgia Southern and Youngstown State. There would be louder cheers from the crowd when the UF or FSU scores were announced than when UCF scored.
My senior year, through a bizarre set of circumstances, we landed Daunte Culpepper. He should have been at a big name school. But here we were, sitting in the Citrus Bowl, watching someone who was the best player on the field by leaps and bounds. We almost beat Nebraska in Lincoln, starting an annoying trend of "almost beating" big teams. Daunte was invited to the Heisman Trophy award ceremony. He got drafted 11th by the Vikings. We never even won a I-AA title, but didn't care because it was a just a transitional stage - starting an annoying trend of looking too far ahead and being mediocre where we were. We got into trouble with the NCAA, starting an annoying trend of being on the wrong side of the law. And we watched teams like USF pop up and race past us. It was frustrating to be a UCF fan. Big schools like UF and FSU didn't take us seriously. Lesser schools like USF and Bowling Green didn't take us seriously. Even doody schools like Miami (Ohio) and Marshall didn't take us seriously. We were just kind of farting around.
Ten years ago, UCF fired Mike Kruczek as head coach. There was an uproar among some fans because Kruczek was the one who recruited Daunte. That fact alone had gotten him the head coaching job and kept him there. And to some, he could have ridden that score forever. But there was a simple fact at play: we weren't going anywhere as long as we kept Kruczek. It was the same fact that ultimately led to the firing of Kirk Speraw as basketball coach. Both of those guys were good coaches. They mostly had winning teams. Every so often, we would pop into the postseason in some way - mostly as cannon fodder or a footnote. But UCF would be terminally trapped in mediocrity. The school itself was exploding in size and renown. There was no justifiable reason why a school ranked in the top five nationally in enrollment in a massive sports state like Florida should be putzing around like UCF was.
Just like when Daunte came to town, UCF got lucky again. George O'Leary had an impressive resume. He had been named National Coach of the Year while at Georgia Tech. They went to big bowl games five years in a row. And he had been hired as coach of Notre Dame. But his resume was a little TOO good. It turned out he had said he had a master's degree and had lettered in football. It was resume padding - something that many people over the years have done to break into the business. But he didn't remove the padding once he "made it." And so he was fired. He ended up getting hired by the Minnesota Vikings as their defensive coordinator, where he led them from 30th in the NFL in defense to 10th. UCF saw a huge opportunity. O'Leary was obviously a great coach. His errors in judgment didn't affect that. So they jumped and hired O'Leary as their new head coach. UCF got tons of coverage for the hiring. They also got tons of coverage the next year, when they went 0-11. Hardly a promising start.
The first six years or so of O'Leary's tenure was rough to say the least. UCF would alternate winning records and losing records for six years. There were some extremely frustrating experiences. I called for his firing on multiple occasions, especially after USF beat the tar out of us 62-12 in 2007. I even went so far as to submit some slightly cruel questions to his radio show like "Does living without a soul make you cold?" We had a major NCAA investigation thanks to our cheating Athletic Director. A player died during workouts. It seemed like things would never get better.
But things were getting better. UCF's graduation rates were among the highest in the nation. We were being shown on national television. We actually started to win some of those games we used to "almost win." There still were maddening failures. We still always were on the outside looking in with the major conferences. When we finally got invited to join one, it was the collapsing Big East. But progress was being made. We had another Heisman candidate in Kevin Smith. Former UCF players like Matt Prater, Brandon Marshall, and Josh Sitton were excelling in the NFL.
It seemed like everything clicked this past year. UCF's affiliation with the Big East (sorry, American Conference) paid off in the final year of the BCS. There was an automatic bid with a championship to one of the "big bowls" - Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Rose. Our homegrown quarterback, Blake Bortles, morphed into a big time college player. [Side note, Blake's mom was Josiah's and Gabe's preschool teacher. That certainly makes all of this even more exciting.] Last year, we almost knocked off Ohio State. This year, we actually did beat Penn State in their stadium. We only lost to South Carolina by three and should have won that game. Living up here, it was interesting to see the nation's opinion of UCF change so rapidly. The people I encountered up here prior to the game thought it was just another cupcake for Clowney and company to feast upon. I kept saying they needed to watch out; UCF was better than they thought. It was a tough game to watch because UCF was the better team. Time after time they shot themselves in the foot. USC won, but UCF came storming back and probably would have taken the game if it had gone to overtime. The thing is, USC fans knew that. After that, anytime people saw my UCF shirt or license plate, they responded differently. "Man, you almost got us." Or, "you guys have a good team this year." These were SEC people who usually see the rest of the college football landscape as the minor leagues. They saw UCF as a threat.
That ability to come storming back and never give up became the hallmark of this UCF team. It felt like we were losing just about every game at some point in the fourth quarter. No game was ever over until the final gun. Time and again, UCF came through. Blake Bortles and the Defense refused to let UCF lose. We knocked off eighth ranked, undefeated Louisville in their house on a Thursday night on ESPN. We were on ESPN for four games and ABC for the first time ever. UCF ended up 11-1, undefeated in conference play, ranked 15th, and in the Fiesta Bowl against Baylor. Less than twenty years after saying "How could we possibly expect to beat Youngstown State? They are a national power." Ten years after being ranked dead last in the NCAA Division I. We were playing in a BCS bowl. We had a nationally ranked team. We had another Heisman candidate, with a real shot at starting in the NFL.
An interesting statistic was mentioned during the Blizzard Bowl against SMU last week. The few seniors UCF have (just seven) finished their college career with 37 wins in their four years - an average of 9 wins a year. They actually won 11, 5, 10, and 11 games. How does 37 wins across the last four years stack up? Let us see.
- Florida - 30 wins
- FSU - 40 wins
- USF - 18 wins
- Miami - 29 wins
- Texas - 30 wins
- South Carolina - 41 wins
- USC - 34 wins
Let's just say it isn't bad. UCF and George O'Leary has built something in Orlando. The most impressive thing about this team is that there were only seven seniors. UCF should be better next year. Do you mind if I type that again? It's my blog, so I can do what I want. UCF should be better next year. There are a bunch of assumptions to that statement. Blake Bortles could go pro, which would effectively render that line of thinking moot. The American Conference isn't going to be much better next year. Louisville is leaving for greener pastures. And our non-conference games are even better next year. Missouri, BYU, and Penn State IN IRELAND!!! That guarantees several nationally televised games. We obviously will get a lot of coverage for the Fiesta Bowl. And if we beat Baylor....
That is the wonderful thing about being a UCF fan right now. We've been through a lot over the years. Finally having success feels so good. But having hope as a fan is even better. Is it crazy to say we could beat Baylor? Oh yeah. But, at this point, crazy isn't so crazy any more. Who would have thought we could beat Penn State or Louisville this year? Or what about hanging in there with South Carolina to where we gave the game away, which is entirely different than getting beaten outright? Who would have thought we would be 11-1 or in a BCS bowl or ranked 15 or anything that happened this year? It is all crazy. So, talking about beating Baylor has become a perfectly sane conversation.