UCF has come a long way, baby
From the cow pasture to ESPN GameDay,
From the obscurity of a distant cow pasture, a football program sprouted four decades ago and mushroomed into the historic, euphoric commotion of emotion we saw on Saturday when ESPN GameDay showcased UCF — a massive build-up to the monumental conference game between the 11th-ranked Knights and 24th-ranked Cincinnati. UCF dominated the Bearcats 38-13 in front of a sellout crowd at Spectrum Stadium.
Ron Johnson has been waiting for this day his entire adult life — ever since he played in that first UCF game in 1979 in a driving rainstorm on what was essentially a cow pasture at tiny Saint Leo College.
Since then, Johnson has either played in or attended every UCF home except one — and he missed that one last season when he was in the hospital battling Stage 4 cancer.
“This weekend has been like the Olympics; it’s something we’ve worked for our entire lives,” says Johnson, a former safety and two-time academic All-American “Since I was 18 years old, this is something I’ve dreamed of. This weekend has totally legitimized our program. UCF has arrived globally as a brand name in college football.”
This might have been the most important day in UCF football history. More important than the day Daunte Culpepper signed in 1995. More important than the Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor five years ago. More important than the Peach Bowl victory over
important than the Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor five years ago. More important than the Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, the perfect season and athletics director Danny White’s self-proclaimed national championship a year ago.
“This is a big moment for our university; it’s another milestone,” White said of GameDay setting up shop at Memory Mall in the middle of UCF’s campus.
From a marketing perspective, never has the UCF brand been put on national display like this. As Desmond Howard, one of the GameDay analysts, pointed out early in Saturday’s show, “This is a three-hour infomercial on UCF.”
And Knight Nation showed up loud and proud for the GameDay crew that included Howard, host Rece Davis, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit, whose criticism of UCF’s dubiously weak strength of schedule made him the target of hundreds of GameDay signs
“Herbstreit sleeps with a Knight light,” one sign said.
“Is this a record for signs?” a bemused Herbstreit said early in the broadcast as he surveyed the raucous, roaring crowd behind the GameDay set.
Many of the signs were creative and hilariously took shots at the perceived lack of respect UCF gets from the national media and the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.
Read one placard: “I had a better sign, but the Playoff Committee Wouldn’t Let It In!”
Another sign not only lampooned the playoff committee but also state of Florida election officials. “No. 11? UCF Demands a Recount!”
Although most everybody is pretty much in agreement that UCF, Cincinnati and no other team from the less prestigious “Group of 5” conferences will get into the four-team playoff this season (or any other year, for that matter), but at least UCF had played its way into the conversation. It doesn’t matter if the 22-game win streak ends this week, next week or any other week, UCF has become a name brand and a major player in college football.
Everybody who’s anybody in college football — conference commissioners, school presidents, playoff selection committee members — all watch GameDay. And what that they saw Saturday was an ocean of black-and-gold devotion.
Don’t kid yourself, the next time a major conference wants to expand, UCF will be right at the top of the list. The GameDay crew might be the biggest influence-makers in college football, and they now know the story of UCF. They’ve seen it, heard it, felt it, touched it.
They now know UCF is an absolutely thriving institution of higher learning with more growth potential than any college football program in the country. They now know UCF is the largest university in the country with an enrollment of more than 68,000 and is cranking out graduates (and future season-ticket holders) at a mind-boggling rate. They now know that Orlando is the biggest TV market in America with a major college football program but no NFL team.
They now know UCF, for four consecutive years, has had the highest student-athlete graduation of any public school in America. They now know UCF ranks among the nation’s 10 most innovative universities, ahead of Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Harvard and Duke, according to the U.S. News & World Report.
It’s a big deal when you have influence makers like Corso go all-in on UCF as he did on Saturday when he said, “I think UCF deserves a chance to play for the national championship.” Corso usually dons the mascot head of whichever team he picks to win the big game, but on Saturday he donned the entire Knightro outfit.
It’s a big deal when a respected analyst like Davis acknowledged on Saturday that UCF is the best team in Florida: “It’s indisputable, they are state champions,” Davis said.
It’s a big deal when Davis came back from a commercial break Saturday and estimated that there were 20,000 fans at the GameDay celebration, which may have made it unofficially the largest on-site crowd in the history of the program.
It was an amazing spectacle and telecast — all the way up until Maury Povich came up on stage as the guest picker. Somewhere, George O’Leary must have been thinking, “What does Maury Povich have to do with UCF?”
O’Leary, the no-nonsense former coach who insisted that UCF commit to facilities, infrastructure and academic excellence before he would accept the job in 2004, watched Saturday from his beach house in Palm Coast. He couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride.
“I’m proud of what this program has become,” O’Leary said. “This is what I envisioned. I said when I came to UCF that the program was a sleeping giant. Well, the entire country knows now that the giant is wide-awake. This is all part of legacy we all wanted to leave.”
That legacy started with boys of ’79 — the members of that inaugural team who had to pay their own way to UCF just for a chance to play Division III football. They had to buy their own shoes and socks and jerseys and jocks. None of them was on scholarship. Don Jonas, the head coach, was an unpaid volunteer who had a full-time job working for the city.
“This is the vision we had for UCF back in ’79,” Johnson said. “This is what all of us on that first team hoped the program would become.”
As it turns out, that cow pasture in St. Leo was really UCF’s field of dreams.
Fans packed Spectrum Stadium to watch UCF take down Cincinnati 38-13 on Saturday night.
UCF receiver Tre Nixon (16) and quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) celebrate after a touchdown Saturday during the Cincinnati at UCF football game at Spectrum Stadium.