Aug. 17, 2007
Orlando, Fla. (www.UCFAthletics.com) - Coming off a 3-9 season in 2003 that concluded with the loss of its head coach, UCF was fully aware that a university's stock is enhanced by a successful athletics program. UCF President John C. Hitt told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "If you want to be taken seriously as a major public institution in the Southeast, you also have to have a presence in Division I-A football. People expect to see that."
In December, the school proved its commitment to football when athletics director Steve Orsini, with Hitt's blessing, hired Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator George O'Leary to serve as UCF's head coach. The hire brought national attention from outlets including Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine and USA Today. The excitement surrounding the hire helped the school's fans forget the previous season, which was riddled with injuries and suspensions, and focus on a suddenly positive future.
Prior to his two seasons with the Vikings, O'Leary served as head coach at Georgia Tech from 1994-2001, during which the same time Orsini was the Yellow Jackets senior associate athletics director. At Tech, O'Leary was the 2000 Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year and was twice the ACC Coach of the Year in 1998 and 2000.
Orsini publicly commented on the O'Leary hire at UCF by proclaiming, "There's not a better person available in America today for what UCF's football program needed than George O'Leary."
"This is the man who will take the football program ... to national prominence," Orsini said in another statement.
O'Leary's first year at UCF was rough. The Knights endured a 0-11 record while their roster was going through overhaul. Lost within the team's worst slide since 1982, was UCF's last season playing in the MAC, in which the Knights ended with a 0-8 mark.
Despite the on-field results, Hitt and Orsini stayed true to the commitment as the Nicholson Fieldhouse opened the following June. Located behind the state-of-the-art Wayne Densch Sports Center and adjacent to the outdoor practice fields, the Nicholson Fieldhouse was the first 120-yard indoor practice facility of any Division I institution in the state of Florida.
When the winless streak finally ended at 17 games on September 24, 2005 with a 23-13 victory over Marshall in that season's home-opener, the frenetically-charged atmosphere in the Citrus Bowl left by the victory may have been just enough to spark one of the greatest turnarounds in college football. The Knights would go on to win seven of eight games, play and host the inaugural Conference USA football championship in front of a school-record 51,978 fans and earn the first bowl invitation in program history.
Most would say UCF shocked the college football world in 2005, going from 0-11 in 2004 to 8-5 capped by the school's first bowl appearance in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. The Knights would also finish 7-1 in their first season playing in Conference USA en route to winning the East Division regular season crown. The eight-game improvement from a year prior tied for the fourth-best turnaround in NCAA history and UCF became the sixth team to play in a bowl game after going winless the previous year as well as the fourth team to play seven away games in a season (11-game schedule) and participate in a bowl game.
After leading the squad to the Conference USA East Division title and a berth in the inaugural league championship game, O'Leary was named the C-USA Coach of the Year, as selected by the league's head coaches and media members in each conference city. On top of the conference honor, CBSSportsline.com and SportsIllustrated.com named him the national coach of the year beating out the likes of Steve Spurrier (South Carolina), Joe Paterno (Penn State), Charlie Weis (Notre Dame) and Pete Carroll (USC).
Remarkably, O'Leary started at least 24 freshmen or sophomores during the 2005 season; most notably, freshmen running back Kevin Smith and cornerback/punt returner Joe Burnett. The later was a strong consideration for Conference USA Freshman of the Year, tying for the league lead in interceptions (five) and leader in punt returns, finishing sixth nationally. However, Smith was named the Conference USA Freshman of the Year after finishing the campaign with the second-most rushing yards for a true freshman in the NCAA in 2005. He ended the season with 1,178 yards, including a Sheraton Hawaii Bowl-record 202 yards in UCF's 49-48 overtime loss to Nevada. Smith had the longest run in Hawaii Bowl history with a 78-yard touchdown.
In the spring of 2006, Brandon Marshall was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, while three other Golden Knights signed free agent contracts: Paul Carrington (Atlanta), Darcy Johnson (New York Giants) and Matt Prater (Detroit).
In O'Leary's first season in 2004, 16 of 62 scholarship players were on academic probation; by the end of 2005, 40 of 73 players made the athletic academic honor roll.
Prior to the 2006 campaign, UCF announced plans to build an on-campus football stadium. The athletics department release stated that "the stadium will seat approximately 45,000 fans in a bowl-shaped configuration and feature a state-of-the-art scoreboard, video board, luxury boxes, natural-grass playing surface and a large club lounge and press box."
Orsini would depart UCF after fours years to take on a similar role at Conference USA brethren Southern Methodist. This led Hitt to conduct another national search that led to the hiring of prominent BCS bowl game administrator Keith Tribble in April, who had spent the previous 13 years as Chief Executive Officer of the historic Orange Bowl Committee - host of the prestigious FedEx Orange Bowl.
It was Tribble's career goal to become an athletics director at a prominent university, and to receive the opportunity within his home state made the situation all the better. Outside of being one of the prime architects of today's collegiate bowl championship system, Tribble spent several seasons as an administrator with the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and University of Florida, the later being a place he starred as an offensive lineman during the 1970s.
That signing led directly into another when the school negotiated a 10-year extension with O'Leary to keep him at UCF through 2015.
"Coach O'Leary has led our football team to new levels of excellence on the field and in the classroom,' said Hitt at a subsequent press conference. "This contract assures that he will complete his coaching career...I could not be more pleased that it bears my signature."
"His commitment and dedication to UCF athletics is without question. Last season's momentous turnaround and accomplishment demonstrated to us why he is one of the top football coaches in the nation. We are excited to continue building our legacy with him," added Tribble.
Not long after, on August 8, plans for Bright House Networks Stadium were officially announced, after the successful cable television provider and the university agreed to a landmark 15-year agreement for the naming rights to college football's newest on-campus stadium.
With the excitement surrounding the program after the successes of the 2005 season and the summer announcement of a new on-campus stadium, the Knights began 2006 with much fanfare and strong notice in nearly every preseason college football publication. The season started with a 35-16 victory over Villanova at the Citrus Bowl, but UCF would fall in seven of its next eight before winning two of the final three. The fans stuck with their Knights, though, as a school-record 220,980 attended seven home games during the last season at the downtown venue. The record was actually broken by the fifth home game when the total reached 165,811.
The Knights closed out their long-historic tenure at the Citrus Bowl going out in style, posting a 31-22 win over UAB on November 25 to finish the season at 4-8 overall, 3-5 in conference.
The growth of the program was also evident in the media, as the Knights topped their previous single-season record of five national television games in 2005 with seven in 2006. Overall, the Golden Knights had nine televised games in 2006 - also a record. The TV slate featured two games on ESPN2 and one on ESPN.
After a record-breaking season in which he recorded a school-best 90 receptions, receiver Mike Walker was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third round of the NFL Draft. On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Johnell Neal became the first at his position to lead the team in tackles with 66, including 47 solo stops.