Five Things UCF’s New Football Coach Must Do

UCF Football Coaching Search

Bright House Networks Stadium UCF
Panorama of Bright House Networks Stadium during the 2013 UConn game (Photo: Jeff Sharon)

Whomever Danny White hires as his new football coach at UCF will have more of a rebuild rather than a renovation job on his hands. Given how this coach will have a lot of pieces to pick up, he will have an opportunity to modernize the program – something the previous administration was not interested in doing – and shape it in his own image.

That’s more than just on-the-field stuff, of course. But there are some things I’ve heard from fans, high school coaches and others with varying connections to UCF that they would like to see.

Here now is a look at five of those things UCF’s new football coach should do:

1. Overhaul recruiting in Central and South Florida.

Danny White emphasized recruiting in his introductory press conference, and there is a damn good reason for that: Recruiting is the name of the game in college sports in 2015.

Prior to the O’Leary Era, UCF had solid footholds in Central Florida and around the state, keeping solid athletes home (See: Brandon Marshall, Mike Walker, Darin Slack, Daunte Culpepper).

Then, when O’Leary came, he went back to the places he was familiar with from his Syracuse and Georgia Tech days – Upstate New York, Long Island, and South Georgia. But he did so at the expense of in-state recruiting, and particularly Central and South Florida.

Kareem Reid, who played for O’Leary in his first two years at UCF, knows quite a bit about both sides of the coin. The Coral Springs native and former UCF defensive end just finished his third season as the head coach at Coconut Creek High School in Broward County, where he has built a program that was once a doormat into a budding football powerhouse.

Reid said in an interview that O’Leary’s issue was that his model of recruiting was “out-dated.” In particular, O’Leary would not give offers to high school players until their senior years while coaches from other schools would offer players and juniors and sometimes sophomores.

“I have freshmen getting offers from schools like Alabama, UF and UM,” Reid said. “We’re [referring to UCF] getting to the party too late.”

Reid also mentioned O’Leary’s unwillingness to hold one-day camps for high school players, which also contributed to a dramatic fall-off in talent late in his tenure. One-day camps are relatively inexpensive ways to get hundreds of nearby top-level high school recruits to the campus to see the facilities, meet the coaches, and show off their talent, but O’Leary didn’t do that.

“It finally caught up to him,” Reid added.

Reid’s sentiments are accurate. O’Leary was increasingly seen as out of touch with both local high school coaches and the fan base for his abdication of Central and South Florida to the likes of Florida, FSU, and others (Blake Bortles and a few others notwithstanding).

To be fair, it’s not like UCF hasn’t had talent in the past ten years (2015 aside), and not everyone wants to stay home to go to college. But there’s no question that UCF has missed out on talented players from Central and South Florida schools that could have made tremendous impacts on the program, but instead made them elsewhere.

Recruiting peaked in the O’Leary Era when David Kelly was in charge. Kelly, whom Reid praised for his efforts in getting UCF’s name out to South Florida kids, did score some significant talent, but when Kelly was fired following the Ken Caldwell Scandal, his recruiting acumen went with him.

UCF’s new head coach needs to cover Central Florida’s top recruits like rain on a  summer afternoon, and make headway once again down south. Not doing so could kill the program with high school coaches for yet another generation.

2. Market UCF on the field.

George O’Leary got everything he wanted, and nothing he didn’t. That filtered down to marketing the football program as well.

But the problem is that O’Leary didn’t understand marketing his program to recruits, let alone the fans. In turn, UCF has been seen by some as a stale, old-fashioned program. While O’Leary deserves credit for bringing UCF Football out of the Dark Ages, he had no interest in moving certain aspects of the program into the 21st Century.

In 2015 that means doing such odd things as putting last names on the backs of jerseys, as well as having more than two uniform combinations (perhaps wearing more black, for example).

Here are some examples of O’Leary’s resistance to progress:

  • When UCF changed its logo in 2007, O’Leary demanded that only the stacked UCF logo be used in reference to his team in any materials. Not even a Knight would be seen associated with his team.
  • The choice of white helmets was deliberate. O’Leary wanted (quite rightly) his program to be perceived as squeaky clean. So white and gold were the primary colors to be worn on the field. Black was out.
  • Following the 2013 USF Black Friday game, in which UCF stumbled to a win over a struggling Bulls squad in black jerseys and helmets – O’Leary famously said he’d never have his team wear black helmets again (as though that mattered in terms of how the team played).

But it’s actually a symptom of a larger issue. Allowing UCF to better market its on-field look matters to young players looking for a place to spend their college days. This is a symptom of the magnitude of influence that apparel companies like Nike have with high school recruits.

Being seen as progressive on the field actually reflects a program’s tradition, as Reid mentioned.

“We don’t take opportunities to market our program,” Reid said, “and when you don’t do that, you don’t have tradition.”

No one is saying UCF needs to turn into the Oregon of the south (although that would be kind of neat). But these days, such things as on-field marketing matter to recruits and fans alike. O’Leary avoided it like the plague. The next guy has to embrace it.

3. Schedule anyone, anywhere.

Another one of O’Leary’s bugaboos came with scheduling. He was always an advocate of scheduling tough, but O’Leary also demanded that any so-called Power Five conference school with whom he inked a deal agree to a one-for-one.

In other words, we play them once at their place, they play us once at our place.

The only problem was that most big time schools who would play UCF want a two-for-one: We play them twice at their place, and they come to Orlando once.

There is principle behind this, but that doesn’t make it any smarter.

When you’re a non-Power Five conference team, you need as many opportunities to take on the Goliaths of the college football world as possible. These opportunities are becoming fewer and more far between, now that the College Football Playoff is beginning to have a real effect on non-conference scheduling.

This also hurts the attractiveness of the home schedule for the fans, as UCF backers are being denied the best possible schedule to see at home, not to mention prime destinations to travel.

But more importantly, it violates an ethos that other schools have played to their advantage. Case in point: Boise State.

The Broncos have not been afraid to punch up in their scheduling. Their “Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime” attitude has resulted in occasional disasters, but those games on the road in hostile environments mentally hardened their teams, and when the lights were on in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma in 2007, they weren’t afraid of the stage.

Even more importantly, that victory (let’s say it’s equivalent to the Knights’ Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor) led to other opportunities. The Broncos played Virginia Tech in Washington, DC in 2010. They’ve played Georgia and Ole Miss to start the season in Atlanta. And they’ve beaten Oregon more than once.

Meanwhile, in the O’Leary Era, UCF has played Miami twice, Florida once (2006), and Florida State precisely zero times. Also, here’s how many times UCF has played teams in the SEC in non-bowl games under O’Leary:

  • South Carolina – three times (two in Columbia!)
  • Mizzou – twice
  • Florida – once

To put that into comparison, as a D-I independent in 1997, UCF played four (!) SEC teams, plus then-#6 Nebraska.

UCF should punch up in scheduling. If that means two-for-ones with Florida, FSU, Georgia or whomever, so be it. Name the time and the place and we’ll be there. Plus I don’t think any UCF fan would mind the trip to those places.

At the very least, it beats the hell out of playing FIU again.

Oh wait, we’ve still got two more against them? Ugh.

4. Engage with the fan base.

Go look at any photo of George O’Leary with fans. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

OK. Notice anything? He looks like he’d rather be somewhere else. That’s because he would.

That’s an insult. These people buy the tickets that keep the program going. Take the damn picture.

Oh and don’t get started on social media. Could you imagine George O’Leary with a Twitter account?

In all seriousness, look around college football at the coaches who are active on social media: Jim McElwain. Bo Pelini. Urban Meyer. Brian Kelly. Bret Bielema. Mark Richt.

And look, I get that these coaches have a marketing person in charge of their accounts, in all likelihood. In fact, I’m sure many of those guys look at this as an annoyance.

But that’s not the point. The point is they are putting out the perception that they are active and engaged with fans on social media. And while the NCAA forbids coaches now from directly interacting with recruits via social media, the fact is that having a personal presence on the interwebs actually has a positive impact on how recruits perceive you.

It also helps in putting a positive message about your program out to the fan base. This rallies them to your support when things go south. George’s lack of engagement was a massive hindrance.

I remember fans yelling “FIRE O’LEARY!” at me when I roamed the sidelines in 2008, when we went 4-8.

“Look at that,” a friend of mine said to me that year. “All these empty seats because of one guy.”

Then we got good, and the yelling stopped for a bit. But as soon as things got out of hand again, the entire fan base turned on O’Leary almost instantaneously. He had no political capital, and it contributed to him losing his job.

You cannot convince me that not engaging the fan base did not contribute in some way to (a) UCF being perceived as a dinosaur by recruits and (b) fans turning their backs on a program run by a coach who held them in contempt at times.

5. Install an up-tempo offense.

People were calling for George O’Leary to open up the offense since his first season. But this has some relation to a few of the previous points above.

O’Leary believed in consistency and building a program from the ground up. That meant very basic football on offense – strong offensive lines, and an emphasis on the run.

That worked when Kevin Smith showed up – to the tune of 2,500+ yards and the first conference title in school history. But then the formula broke down in the next few years.

Enter offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe. Taaffe was experienced enough to tell O’Leary what was what with the offense, and creative enough to open it up and let the athletes that David Kelly recruited show off their wares.

Taaffe retired before this season, leaving the keys to the offense to the ostensible head coach-in-waiting, Brent Key. The rest is history.

A few notable exceptions aside, the UCF offense has been largely anemic since Mike Kruczek left. Back then, UCF was known for offense. As a result, UCF out-recruited its I-A Independent/MAC identity.

The advantages of running an up-tempo offensive scheme at a place like UCF are obvious:

  • The weather is great and it’s hot out most of the season, and this allows you to wear defenses down.
  • Recruits love to play in up-tempo schemes. In the age of 7-on-7, kids who don’t go to SEC schools want to show off their athleticism. What better way to do that than in a spread offense?
  • Florida athletes are fast. You almost have to run an up-tempo offense to take advantage of the best athletes that the high schools are giving you.
  • You can win games without playing your best, because you’re never out of a game.
  • Fans love it.

To someone like Kareem Reid, who coaches high schoolers now, it’s a no-brainer as to what kind of coach should be UCF’s next head man.

“We need somebody who’s going to bring energy,” Reid said. “An offensive guy…an offensive mind who’s creative and we’ll be OK. It’ll be a quick flip.”

I think Kareem Reid is exactly right. We do need an offensive guy. And if we get the right one, I share his optimism. It will indeed be a quick flip. UCF is perfectly positioned to get back to prominence in a hurry, and maybe even back to a major bowl game within two or three years, depending on recruiting.

Most importantly, we need a return to the Napoleonic Complex that united UCF football with its fan base many years back, and will unite it with the recruits of the future.

The question is whether they will hire the guy who will do all of these things. There are lots of names out there. Hopefully one of them will.

About Jeff Sharon 184 Articles

Jeff Sharon is the Managing Editor, Publisher, and boss around here. He graduated from UCF in 2005 and worked in the Knights’ athletic department full-time from 2008-2010. He still works for UCF as a public address announcer at several sporting events and also thinks the Atlantic Sun Conference days were more fun than you realized. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Sharon.