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The UCF Knights football team represents The University of Central Florida (UCF) in the sport of American football. The Knights compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision of theNational Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the American Athletic Conference(The American). Their current head coach is George O’Leary, who has led the team since 2004. The Knights play their home games at Bright House Networks Stadium, which is located on the main campus of UCF in Orlando, Florida.
The University of Central Florida first fielded a varsity football team in the fall of 1979 as aDivision III program, and subsequently completed their ascension to Division I-A, now known as the Division I Football Subdivision (FBS), in 1996. As a Division I-AA program, the Knights made the 1990 and 1993 playoffs, and were picked as the preseason No. 1 to start the 1994 season.
As of the completion of the 2012 season, UCF has 204 official victories, has won four division championships (2005, 2007, 2010, 2012), two conference championships (2007,2010), and has made five postseason appearances since joining Division I-A (2005, 2007,2009, 2010, 2012).
Head coaches[edit source | editbeta]
UCF has had eight head coaches since organized football began in 1979. The Knights have played nearly 400 games in their 34 seasons. In that time, 2 coaches have led the Knights to the postseason: Gene McDowell and George O’Leary. McDowell in 1987, 1990, and 1993, and O’Leary in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2012. O’Leary is the only coach to win a division or conference championship at the school. Before leading UCF in 1983 and 1984, Lou Saban was a head coach in both the American Football League(AFL) and the National Football League (NFL). O’Leary also coached in the NFL between 2002 and 2004.
Jonas era: 1979–1981[edit source | editbeta]
The UCF football program can be traced back to a speech given by the href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Presidents_of_the_University_of_Central_Florida”>university’s second president, Dr. Trevor Colbourn, in January 1979. Colbourn believed that a successful athletics program would bring the university greater renown, and tasked Dr. Jack O’Leary with the job of creating a new football program at the school. In addition, Colbourn changed the name of the school to the University of Central Florida, to express the university’s expanded academic scope.
Beginning at the Division III level, when the school was still widely known as Florida Technological University, O’Leary, then the university’s athletic director, held a meeting of prospective players in March 1979. This would be the first football tryouts for prospective players, and would serve as the first that many students would hear about the new athletic program. O’Leary had previously served as an assistant coach at the University of Alabama under Paul “Bear” Bryant. He would spearhead the effort to raise more than $40,000 to start the program, and would complete a deal for the team to play in the Tangerine Bowl. Without a budget to hire a staff, O’Leary reached out to six UCF graduate students as volunteer assistants. From there, O’Leary was able to lure Don Jonas, a former NFLquarterback and Orlando dignitary, to become UCF’s first head football coach on a voluntary basis.
One day during a practice, O’Leary pulled the team aside and unveiled the template for uniforms of “The Fighting Knights”. He would reveal a template that would follow the team into the 21st century: black jerseys, gold pants and gold helmets. Less than one year after Colbourn had envisioned a football program for the university, UCF hosted its first game on September 22, 1979 against St. Leo University. The Knights would prove victorious with a 21–0 shutout, and less than a week later, the Knights would win their first home game by defeating Ft. Benning, 7–6. Jonas led the Knights to a 6–2 inaugural season, behind an average attendance of 11,240, including a Division III record crowd of 14,138. Following the season, in March 1980, Jonas was offered the Knights head coaching as a full-time position. After leading the team to a 4–4–1 and 4–6 record in 1980 and 1981 respectively, Jonas would leave the Knights following the 1981 season. During the 1980 season, the Knights earned the only tie in program history, an 11–all game against Miles, and Tim Kiggins became the first Knight to sign a professional contract. After his departure, Jonas remained involved in the program, including doing radio broadcasts of UCF football games and a radio sports talk show. Jonas led the Knights to a 14–12–1 (.518) record in three seasons.
Turbulent times: 1982–1984[edit source | editbeta]
Following the departure of Jonas, Sam Weir, who was the head coach at Lake Howell High School, became UCF’s new head coach and led the Knights in their move up to Division II in 1982. Another change to the university’s athletic programs in 1982 was the departure of O’Leary as athletic director, and the hiring of Bill Peterson, who was the Florida State Seminoles head coach from 1960–70. In their first season playing Division II ball, the Knights went 0–10, and Weir decided not to return for the 1983 season. One bright spot of the season was that Mike Carter became the first Knight to sign with an NFL team, the Denver Broncos.
Lou Saban replaced Weir as the Knights head coach in 1983. Saban had previously coached at Miami,Army, Northwestern, and in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Boston Patriots, to name just a few. In UCF’s first Black and Gold Spring game held in 1983, the defense won 14–6. The Knights finished the 1983 season 5–6, including the team’s first win over a Division I-AA opponent. Starting the 1984 season filled with optimism, the Knights were shaken by a 1–6 start. Following the disappointing beginning to the season, Saban stepped away from the program, and was replaced by assistant coach Jerry Anderson. Saban had a 6–12 (.333) record during his tenure as the Knights head coach. Anderson finished out the year with the team in an interim position, with a 1–3 (.250) record. UCF finished the season with a 2–9 mark.
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In the course of the three seasons following Jonas’ departure, the Knights went through three head coaches, and amassed a 7–25 record.
McDowell era: 1985–1997[edit source | editbeta]
Reeling after a disappointing string of seasons, there were discussions within the community about the possibility of dismantling the program, and Peterson announced his retirement as the university’s athletic director. In addition, due to financial troubles, the team had to postpone plans to move up to Division I-AA. Without a head coach or athletic director, President Colbourn hired Florida State assistant coach Gene McDowell to fill both positions. McDowell took the helm in 1985, and hired his eventual successor and formerPittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mike Kruczek as his offensive coordinator. The Knights would finish with a 4–7 mark in McDowell’s first year, including a 21–42 loss to UCF’s first-ever Division I-A opponent, Louisville. Due to financial hardships, McDowell waived half of his annual salary, and FSU head coach Bobby Bowden donated uniforms and cleats to the program.
McDowell would the lead the Knights to their first winning season since 1979, with a 6–5 record in 1986. Also that year, Ted Wilsonbecame the first UCF player to be selected in the NFL draft, being picked by the Washington Redskins in the 10th round. Following an 8–3 regular season record in 1987, the Knights earned their first trip to the Division II playoffs, where they earned a 1–1 record. After starting the 1988 season with five straight wins, UCF would be ranked No. 2 in Division II. During a game against the defending D-II national champions Troy at the Citrus Bowl, UCF fans were so loud at one point that the Trojans quarterback Bob Godsey couldn’t call plays. Godsey complained to the referee about the crowd noise, but instead of helping Troy, the referee called a delay of game penalty on the Trojans. The “noise penalty” is infamous at UCF, and the win over Troy thrust the Knights into the position as the No. 1 ranked team in D-II. Between 1986 and 1990 under the leadership of McDowell, the Knights held a 24–6 record at the Citrus Bowl.
During McDowell’s tenure, the program moved up to Division I-AA in 1990. In their first year in the division, the Knights earned a 10–4 record, a program best, and a trip to the I-AA playoffs. UCF would make it to the semifinals, and became the first school in history to qualify for the I-AA playoffs in its first season of eligibility. The Knights would finish the 1991 and 1992 with winning seasons as well. In 1992, Dr. John Hitt, UCF’s fourth president, announced that the program would make the move to Division I-A in 1996, and he hiredSteve Sloan as the university’s new athletic director. Earning their eighth winning season in 1993, the Knights would again make the playoffs. During the season, the team won their first game over a Division I-A team, a 38–16 victory at Louisiana Tech. After another impressive season, UCF was selected as the preseason No. 1 to start the 1994 season. The 1994 season would prove disappointing however, as the Knights would finish the season ranked No. 20 with a 7–4 record. During the teams final season in Division I-AA, the Knights were reinvigorated by freshman sensation Daunte Culpepper. The quarterback would lead the Knights to a 6–5 record, and their tenth straight winning season in 1995.
On September 1, 1996, UCF officially made its foray into Division I-A. At that time, the Knights became the first football program to play in four different NCAA divisions (III, II, I-AA and I-A). In their first two seasons in Division I-A, the Knights posted identical 5–6 records behind Culpepper. In 1997, assistant coach Alan Gooch was named the national assistant coach of the year, due to his work with deaftailback Dwight Collins. In the wake of a federal fraud scandal revolving around improper cellular phone benefits and use, McDowell resigned as head coach on January 20, 1998. Over his 13–year tenure at UCF, McDowell earned a 87–61 (.587) record.
Kruczek era: 1998–2003[edit source | editbeta]
After the abrupt departure of McDowell, Mike Kruczek was named UCF’s new head coach on an interim basis. He would receive the position permanently later in 1998. Daunte Culpepper led UCF to its best season ever with a 9-2 record in 1998 (with losses only coming to Purdue andAuburn). Culpepper finished 6th in the Heisman Trophy voting and set the NCAA record for completion percentage that year (73.4%). Following the season, Culpepper was drafted with the 11th pick in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings, marking the highest ever draft pick of a UCF player.
The Knights proved to be a scary team on the road, with close losses including a 6–10 loss atAuburn in 1998, a 23–24 loss at Georgia in 1999, and a 17–21 loss at Georgia Tech in 2000. Kruczek’s biggest victory would come in 2000 against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, when the Knights won 40–38 on a last-second field goal by Javier Beorlegui. After finishing 9–2 in 1998, UCF received a tentative verbal agreement to play in the Oahu Bowl. However, the arrangement fell through in the final week of the season, when Miami upset undefeated UCLA. The unexpected result stole UCF’s hopes for their first bowl appearance.
Kruczek guided the team as a Division I-A independent until 2001. After six difficult years as an independent, UCF played its much-anticipated first season as a member of the Mid-American Conference in 2002. They finished runner-up in the East division with a 6–2 record. They finished the season 7–5 overall, completing their 14th winning season in the past 17 years. The excitement however, would be short-lived. After signing a three-year contract extension to begin the 2003 season, Kruczek was fired following a 3–7 start. Kruczek was replaced on an interim basis by Assistant coach and former player Alan Gooch who finished out the dismal 3-9 season with losses to Mid-American Conference rivals Marshall and Miami (OH). The Marshall game marked UCF’s first nationally televised home football game as it was aired on ESPN2. Kruczek ended his 6–year stewardship of UCF with a 36–30 (.545) record.
An increasing travel burden, and lack of natural rivals within the midwest-based MAC saw UCF begin to explore the possibility of a different conference affiliation after just a couple years in the conference. In 2003, UCF was invited as an all-sports member toConference USA for the 2005 season.
O’Leary era: 2004–present[edit source | editbeta]
Following the disappointing 2003 season, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator George O’Learywas named UCF’s new head coach in 2004. This was a controversial hire on several fronts because O’Leary had previously been named head coach at Notre Dame, but was relieved of his duties five days into his tenure after inconsistencies were found on his resume. The difficult coaching transition for 2004, the Knights’ final year in the Mid-American Conference, saw the team hit rock bottom, going 0–11.
In 2005, UCF started their first season as a member of Conference USA. Not expected to improve much over 2004, they surprisingly won their first conference game against Marshall, 23–13, ending the school’s 17 game losing steak, then the nations longest streak. UCF fans celebrated by storming the field and tearing down the goal posts. Students came back to the campus and celebrated further by jumping into UCF’s Reflection Pond (a practice normally reserved for Spirit Splash). UCF then went on to win eight out of the remaining nine games on their schedule, finishing 7–1 in C-USA games, winning the East Division and hosting the first ever C-USA Championship game, which they lost, 27–44, to Tulsa. Shortly thereafter, UCF was invited to play in their first ever bowl game, the Hawaii Bowl, losing to Nevada 49–48 in overtime due to a missed PAT that would have tied the game. In 2005 O’Leary was chosen by SportsIllustrated.com for the coach of the year award and received votes for the larger Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year award. In May 2006, UCF extended O’Leary’s contract for 10 years and increased his pay to $1 million plus incentives per year after he engineered the fourth-best turnaround in college football history.
After an anemic 2006 which saw the Golden Knights go a mere 4–8, the team rebranded in2007 in preparation for its move to its new on-campus venue, Bright House Networks Stadium. They dropped the “Golden” from their name, becoming the “UCF Knights”. Fortunes seemed to have changed as the Knights moved into new facilities. After defeating a BCS school for just the second time ever, the NC State Wolfpack, they inaugurated their new stadium by hosting and losing to the No. 6 ranked Texas Longhorns 32–35. The Knights lost to regional rival South Florida 64–12 in Tampa, but went on to have a 5–1 regular season at home and won the C-USA East again, hosting the Championship game against Tulsa once more. UCF defeated Tulsa in a near-reversal of the 2005 Conference USA Championship Game 44-25, thereby gaining UCF’s first ever Conference Championship title and a berth in the 2007 Liberty Bowl. Following UCF’s victory, the Knights received 35 votes in the AP Poll, but did not reach the top 25, ranking 27th. The Knights lost the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, TN; 3–10 to Mississippi State. The Knights went on to finish the year with its first 10 win season in the FBS. In 2007, Kevin Smith rushed for 2,567 yards, placing him 2nd on the NCAA’s all-time single season rushing list behind Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders. Despite this, he was not selected even as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy or the Doak Walker Award. He also was the only running back in the 2007 season to rush for more than 100 yards against the Texas Longhorns. He was a fan favorite, especially with student section at Brighthouse Networks Stadium. Smith originally stated that he would return for his senior season at UCF, however, he later changed his mind, announcing on January 6, 2008 that he would declare for the NFL Draft. He went with the first pick in the third round, to the Detroit Lions.
On March 18, 2008, running back Ereck Plancher collapsed shortly after a conditioning drill, and was then transported to a nearby hospital where he died approximately one hour later. ESPN‘s “Outside The Lines” program on November 2, 2008 interviewed players who were at the training session at which Plancher became ill, and which after he died, and stated that the session was longer and far more rigorous than O’Leary and other UCF Athletics officials have admitted to publicly. They also alleged that O’Leary and other coaches had initially warned players off from providing assistance to Plancher when he became visibly distressed. After a 14–day trial in 2011, a jury found the UCF Athletics Association guilty of negligence in the death of Plancher. The jury awarded each of his parents $5 million.
After a lackluster 4-8 season in 2008, UCF bounced back with an 8-4 record in 2009, including winning their last six straight C-USA games. Among those wins was their first victory over a nationally-ranked team, beating then No. 12 Houston on November 14, 37–32 at Bright House Networks Stadium. UCF finished the 2009 season 8–5, with a 45–24 loss to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the St. Petersburg Bowl, their third bowl appearance in five years. Entering the 2010 season, with the recruitment of Jeffrey Godfrey and return of key seniors, including Bruce Miller, there were high hopes for the Knights. After winning 5 straight games, and posting an 11-game conference winning streak, the Knights were ranked for the first time in school history following their nationally televised 40–33 victory over the Houston Cougars on the road. For the polls released on November 7, 2010, UCF was ranked in all three major college polls. The Knights were ranked 25 in the AP Poll, 23 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and 25 in the Harris Poll. In their first game as a nationally ranked squad, the Knights fell 21–31 to Southern Miss in Orlando. UCF would bounce back and defeat Tulane 61–14 andMemphis 37–17. With the wins, the Knights secured the Eastern Division championship and reentered the polls.
The Knights would go on to win the 2010 Conference USA championship game, defeating SMU 17–7. Following the win, UCF entered the BCS Standings for the first time in program history, ranking No. 25. The Knights ended the 2010 season with a 10–6 victory over Georgia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, marking the teams first-ever bowl victory. UCF would end the season ranked 20th in the final coaches poll and 21st in the final AP rankings.
2011 proved to be a disappointing season as UCF finished with a losing record, and were not bowl eligible for the first time since 2008. The season included out-of-conference losses to FIU and BYU, as well as conference losses to then-winless UAB, a 1–point loss to then-ranked No. 23 Southern Miss and the continuation of the Knights woes at quarterback, as Jeff Godfrey and Blake Bortles battled for playing time. Following the 2011 season, Jeff Godfrey planned on transferring, though be later decided to return to the Knights as a wide-receiver. Following an investigation into recruiting violations in the men’s basketball and football programs in 2011, on July 31, 2012, the NCAA announced sanctions – in addition to penalties UCF had previously self-imposed. The NCAA imposed a one-year postseason football ban. The penalty is in addition to a $50,000 fine, adding two years to UCF’s previously proposed three years’ probation, reduction of football scholarships, and tighter limits of football recruiting visiting days. In 2012, the Knights won their fourth C-USA East Division championship, though they would fall 27–33 to Tulsa in the league title game. UCF would play in the 2012 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl and come in motivated after the heartbreaking loss to Tulsa. The Knights would win 38-17 as Blake Bortles would be named MVP.
On April 19, 2013, UCF won their appeal with the NCAA and will be eligible for postseason play in 2013.
Championships[edit source | editbeta]
George O’Leary is the only coach in program history to lead the Knights to the postseason since joining the FBS in 1996. Under O’Leary’s leadership, the Knights won four C-USA Eastern Division Championships (2005, 2007, 2010, 2012), and two Conference USA Championships (2007, 2010).
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