Spencer Rubin

24 Hours Later with Basketball Analyst Mike O'Donnell

The Varsity Knight turned broadcaster shares anecdotes and insights following UCF’s inaugural Big 12 Home Opening victory.

by Jenna Marina Lee

Mike O’Donnell serves as a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports and ESPN and was on the call for the UCF men’s basketball team’s inaugural Big 12 home opener on Jan. 10, 2024. The Knights’ 65-60 win over the Jayhawks was significant for many reasons — the highest-ranked win in school history; the first win over a top-5 opponent since 2011 and improved Johnny Dawkins’ record against Kansas to 4-0 in front of one of the largest crowds in UCF history. 

But for O’Donnell — a point guard for the Knights from 2005-08, a two-time alumnus and a former athletics department staff member — the victory held even more weight. 

Less than 24 hours removed from the victory, O’Donnell sat down for a 20-minute interview to provide his analysis of what the Knights did right to pull out the win, his impressions on the evolution of the program, and, of course, all the details about the shoe that became viral on social media and landed him on SportsCenter and CBS Mornings.  

Below are excerpts from the interview. Catch the full interview here:  

The question everybody wants to know is what happened to the shoe? 
O'Donnell: So the court storm happens and it’s bedlam, total chaos, as it should be when you beat Kansas, when you beat the No. 3 team in the country. That is worthy of a completely chaotic situation on the court. And we let it breathe. In the broadcasting world, letting it breathe means both announcers stop talking, you shut up, and you let the moment really speak for itself.

So we were letting it breathe and taking it all in and it was just this epic, really cool scene on the court. All of a sudden we’re getting ready to go down into little x’s and o’s of what happened in that last two minutes and then a shoe comes flying over to the broadcast table. I didn’t catch it cleanly unfortunately. Because I would have felt really good about that. It one-bounced and then I caught it. And it was a black shoe. It looked to be a very expensive athletic shoe and I was completely flabbergasted as to why that happens. I don’t know whose it was. I don’t know how it got there. It was just right place at the right time for the shoe I guess. Because I’m really just here for the meteoric rise of the shoe’s popularity on SportsCenter and the Scott Van Pelt show. I’m basically the shoe’s agent right now. The shoe is way more important than me, no question about it. … 

We don’t quite know where the shoe is yet. I’d love to get ahold of the shoe. I looked at the table again when I left. Didn’t see it. I don’t remember specifically handing it to someone and I don’t remember anyone specifically taking it. And the shoe looked to be intact, fairly clear, well-kept. It didn’t feel as if it had been worn down. 

Literally just in, hot off the presses text message as of 1:49 p.m. from Ken Landis, the SID. “I have the shoe.”
O'Donnell: No way. Are you kidding me? Are we breaking news right now? I need the shoe. I need the shoe more than the shoe needs me. 

Enough with the shoe. Let’s get to the game. What was your impression from the game? Not just the game itself, but the atmosphere, the result and the moment.
O'Donnell: There was a little smirk on my face because it was absolutely a welcome to the Big 12 moment. And it wasn’t necessarily just about the win. It was more about the atmosphere. That home atmosphere is what Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, TCU, Houston, it’s what they expect to receive every single game in Big 12 play. That’s what UCF is going to get every single time they go on the road in Big 12 play. Every game in the Big 12 is so physical and it’s so good and it’s so intense, they all feel like Sweet 16 games. And last night felt like a Sweet 16 game. 

It's important to any media professional to be impartial and I know you really pride yourself on that when you’re on the call. But you’re also human, so as somebody who is so connected to the program in the ways that you are as a former student-athlete, as a former staff member, you’re going to have feelings and thoughts and emotions.

So what I’m wondering is after you take off the headset, as you’re walking out of the arena last night, what were some of those thoughts or feelings that you had? And are you able to unplug at that point?

O'Donnell: The integrity of the broadcast comes first. That’s No. 1. I would happily challenge anybody to say if you listen to that broadcast that if you knew that I had played at UCF, I think it would be difficult. Being unbiased, that has to happen. It’s not even a conversation. So you prepare accordingly. …

When the game ended and the fans are still on the court and broadcast is over, I would be lying to you if I said if I didn’t feel good about this moment for where the program was 30 years ago to where the program is now, I wouldn’t be a human being. I think it would inappropriate for me to just be a robot after the end of the game, not move, not shake hands with people, say hi to people, tell stories with people after the game, that would be crazy to me. 

I really silence my cell phone during the game. I try to stay locked in the best you can. After the game, my phone blew up. The overwhelming majority of the text messages were not just from buddies or friends of the program or outside the program or general friends. I had 87 missed text messages from the UCF alumni basketball group text that I was in. All the guys were just going nuts. Some of the guys were doing play by play in the middle of the game. And asking me questions in the middle of the game. I said I can’t answer this question in the middle of the game. But there was this sense of, without being too cliché, of just pure happiness for the program. It wasn’t wild or everybody’s reminiscing about the old days. It was just complete and pure happiness for the basketball program.  

From your perspective, how have you seen the program evolve?
O'Donnell: We had nothing. My senior year, we didn’t have a locker room. My senior year was the first year the Addition Financial arena opened. IT was just called the UCF Arena at the time. We didn’t have a locker room. We used this room that a lot of the musical acts that would come in would just kind of use for like their roadie crew. It’s a multipurpose room. We put a couple chairs in there and we didn’t have name tags on our lockers. You put a piece of like ankle tape and you’d write your name on this makeshift locker. But we honestly didn’t care. We really didn’t. We weren’t playing for locker rooms. We were playing for the fans.

That era of that Atlantic Sun transferring into Conference USA, it was a big jump at the time for the program. Here’s what I think about. This is a great example: If you go back and you listen to old guys like me and different programs talking about “we laid the foundation for everything” we never really talked about that. We always knew this place could be really really special. But what we always cared about was playing as hard as we possibly could to get people to the stands, to show people that this could be a basketball school. We really cared about having people in the stands. When the game was going on, we didn’t think about it.

But there were these moments in the old arena, which is now The Venue, where I remember it specifically: Me, Jermaine Taylor, Dave Noelle, Chip Cartwright, Josh Peppers, before we ran out there was this little pavilion hallway and there were these two double doors, they were so old they didn’t’ even lock. And right before we’d run out, we used to peek, open up like 1 inch of the door and see how many people were in there about 30 minutes before tip. And sometimes it was a really great crowd and we were like OK we got to put on a great show. And then if we opened the door and there weren’t that many people in the stands, we’d say OK we have to put on an even better show and go crazy and play as hard as we can because we need people to talk about this. …

We did things like passing flyers out to all the Tower dorm rooms. We did that for years. At first it was a little bit, almost felt embarrassing. “Hey everybody, uh hi. I’m not bothering you but here’s a pamphlet to come watch us play basketball. Would you please come watch me play tomorrow night?” We did that because we really, really wanted to make it special. We wanted it to be cool. We knew it could be good. We knew it could be big. We just didn’t have any clue on how big it could be. And then you fast forward handing out flyers, peeking through the door, seeing are we going to get 3,000 people here tonight to one of the largest crowds in the history of UCF and you’re highlights are playing on SportsCenter or Scott Van Pelt. It doesn’t get any better than that. 

What’s next for UCF?
O'Donnell: What’s next is BYU. I laugh at that but that really is the game. That’s the game in the Big 12. When you can go from an enormous win to then 48 hours later you play another top-25 team whether it's at home or on the road, the consistency of showing up and providing that maximum effort and the ability to turn around quickly and show the community and show the fans you belong, that’s the next step. …

I think what last night showed, what a lot of people say is what Addition Financial Arena can be. And what the UCF Basketball program can be. But there’s a really exciting opportunity in front of the Knightmare student section and the UCF Basketball fanbase of where I think they got a taste of the big-time feel for the Big 12. And as they start to learn opposing team coaches and players and cultures and fanbases, you’re going to find out that it’s not just this team coming in who is really good. There is an almost intense intelligence about how you cheer for your team in the Big 12 in every game. And I think the UCF Basketball fan base is really, really close to understanding that. And when they get that, it’s going to become one of the most intense home atmospheres in the Big 12. And if you can say that you’re one of the most intense home atmospheres in the Big 12, you can say you’re one of the most intense home atmospheres in the country. And that’s where I think if we were define potential of what it could be, that’s the real meat and potatoes of the potential.