I’m not one to toss hyperbole around willy-nilly (LOL), but I say this with no reservations:
This Saturday, when ESPN College GameDay broadcasts live from campus, is the most important day in the history of the University of Central Florida.
There is no question about this. None.
And yes, it’s even more important than any playoff game ever would be and here’s why:
This is bigger than any playoff game UCF would play.
Say the UCF Knights actually got into the College Football Playoff. Chances are, we’d be shipped off to Dallas to be stacked up against Alabama and half a JerryWorld of their obnoxious fan base. And I get it, any given Saturday and all that, but we’d likely get poleaxed for three-and-a-half hours on TV and then get sent back home bruised and battered. Thanks for playing, here are your t-shirts.
But College GameDay is different. It’s not about the game as much as it’s about the school - the campus, the people, the atmosphere. Say what you want about the constant need for MORE #CONTENT, but Friday and Saturday will be one 36-hour-long infomercial about how great UCF is as a university.
This weekend it will be clear, breezy and cool. While the rest of the nation is bundled up in their houses, drinking their coffee and thinking BRACE YOURSELF WINTER IS COMING, they will be watching the palm trees sway in the central Florida breeze on just another sunny Saturday morning.
Some kid in Rapid City, South Dakota is going to see that and say, “WHOA - I want to go there!”
UCF and ESPN have grown up together.
On September 7th, 1979, ESPN went on the air for the first time in front of an estimated 30,000 viewers. It was, as some around the company at the time put it, a few trailers and satellite dishes in a cow pasture outside of Hartford:
Some 15 days later, UCF Football made its debut on September 22nd, 1979, in another cow pasture outside of Tampa, next to the campus of St. Leo University:
Since then, ESPN has grown into a multinational media conglomerate, and College Football - and by extension, College GameDay - is arguably its calling card.
In the same amount of time, UCF has grown into the largest university in the country by enrollment, and UCF Football is its calling card.
25 years ago this week, College GameDay went on the road for the first time, leaving the protective confines of Bristol, Connecticut for South Bend, Indiana for the “Game of the Century” between #1 Florida State and #2 Notre Dame.
It was a raging success - so much so that they’re still doing it.
Now, a quarter-century later, GameDay comes to UCF, a school whose ethos represents the 21st Century of college football as much as Notre Dame represented the 20th.
The parallels are too obvious to ignore.
This is UCF’s moment in the sun.
But despite how far UCF has come, most people around the nation don’t know much about UCF the school.
Sure, they know about the football program. But they don’t realize how new and gorgeous the campus is. A large number of the buildings on campus have been either constructed or renovated in just the last 20 years. The Memory Mall, where GameDay will be staged, was a dirt parking lot not all that long ago:
This dirt parking lot has grown up a lot since I was in school. It’s turned into a beautiful lawn surrounded by beautiful buildings at the base of a beautiful Athletic Village and will host @CollegeGameDay on Saturday ⚔️ #ChargeOn pic.twitter.com/ci6Hj0F1Kr— Jimmy Skiles (@JimmySkiles) November 12, 2018
Jimmy and I went to school together, FYI.
Let’s not forget that there are still a lot of people out there who think UCF is some small directional school that happens to be near Disney. They don’t realize it’s the largest university by enrollment in the United States, and has been one of them for several years now.
Now it’s all going to be there for the world to see. Our little secret is going to be out and shown to the nation. The beauty shots are going to be phenomenal on Saturday morning.
Let’s do it right. Please.
Saturday, UCF will be the 71st different school to host College GameDay. It will also be the biggest school to host it. UCF fans not only have to show up (I don’t think that will be a problem), but be passionate, loud, but most of all, respectful of the moment.
I’m not going to rehash all of the Twitter sniping about ESPN, the power conferences, the College Football Playoff, Kirk Herbstriet and all of that. I’ve followed all of it, and yeah, it hurts hearing my alma mater be told to know its place, especially when I’ve known that its place is much closer to the top of that list of 71 schools.
But if you want respect, you’re not going to get it by trying to stick it to ESPN somehow. Early Sunday morning, they’re going to pack up and leave, but they’ll still be there on TV. No amount of drunken shenanigans is going to get them to change some narratives.
But you know what will? If they have a great time here.
I’ve worked in TV - not at the level of ESPN, but it’s a small business and people talk. A lot. We love to talk on and off camera. It’s what we live for. We share experiences of our favorite places to go, and we share which places we’d rather die than go back to. For example, I wish I could go back to Sanford Stadium in Athens just one more time. But The Swamp? No, thank you. I can smell the vomit from here.
I want every last person on the GameDay and ESPN crews, from Herbstriet (who has never been here before) and Fowler (who’s calling play-by-play Saturday night and has also never been here), to the last junior production assistant on the Friday night show to say this when they leave:
“My God in Heaven, that place was INCREDIBLE. We NEED to come back here again as soon as humanly possible, because that was the best time I’ve ever had on the show. The people were AMAZING, the place was gorgeous, and they treated us right, man. Everyone from the SIDs to the university staff to the fans were absolutely first class. They LOVED us - even after everything we said about them the whole season. If we host a show there every year, I’d be thrilled. Shoot, if we hosted the show there every week I’d be thrilled.”
Now, before you get pissed at me for wagging my finger at the fans saying you better be on your best behavior, well, yeah, maybe I am a little at some of you heathens. But we want them to come back.
The sports media world is a small place. We want them all talking glowingly about our little slice of paradise.
Here’s what I’m really saying:
We know damn well UCF is the best university in the world. Let’s show them why.
It’s why we come back. It’s why we stick by it, even when it disappoints us. It’s why we suffered through all of the near misses over all of those years as a D-I Independent, and then the MAC, and then Conference USA. It’s why we keep going nuts on Twitter. Because we know UCF is amazing, and what the hell is the matter with these people? How come they can’t see that?
This weekend, they’re all finally going to see it. For 36 incredible hours, they’re going to see it in all its black and gold and brick-red and green and palm-treed glory.
This is UCF’s moment to show the world what they’ve been missing all this time. it’s for all the alumni who went here when it was called FTU. It’s for the people who withstood the rain in that cow pasture at St. Leo. It’s for the alumni who starred here when they could have gone somewhere else.
And most of all, it’s finally a chance for us, the fans, to show all the reasons why we are so passionate about this place.
So let’s show up, enjoy ourselves, and show the entire world the world at long last what we’ve been screaming at the tops of our lungs for all these years:
Welcome to UCF.
And oh yeah, let’s win the game, too.