UCF has come a long way, baby

From the cow pas­ture to ESPN GameDay,

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - Mike Bianchi Sen­tinel Colum­nist

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.

STEPHEN M. DOWELL/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Fans packed Spec­trum Sta­dium to watch UCF take down Cincin­nati 38-13 on Satur­day night.

STEPHEN M. DOWELL/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

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.

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