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What If UCF Joined Conference USA in 1995?

UCF shut the door before it opened 25 years ago. But where would the Knights be if they didn’t?

Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

We’ve just finished What If Week at SB Nation, and true to that, we’re going to have a little fun in this one.

This is not a look at what definitely would have happened. This is a thought experiment, albeit a fun one. So let’s start with perhaps the greatest butterfly effect moment in UCF Knights history - for my money, the biggest:

What if UCF joined Conference USA when it formed in 1995?


What Actually Happened

In an article back in 1994, then-UCF Athletic Director Steve Sloan tells Jerry Greene of the Orlando Sentinel that: “We are more inclined to be an independent for about five years, and then see if we are attractive to the SEC or ACC,” rather than join a newly-forming league born of a merger between the Metro and Great Midwest Conferences: Conference USA.

Steve Sloan
Former UCF A.D. Steve Sloan
Photo Courtesy UCF

This was a bad idea.

As we now know, USF would be the only Florida school joining the league instead, adding football in 1997 and joining the league as a full member in 2003 before jumping to the Big East in 2005.

Meanwhile, UCF would hack around as an independent for football (later joining the MAC in 2002) and the A-Sun for everything else, and did not join C-USA until USF left. Yes, now they’re both in The American, but if UCF were a lot more realistic a quarter of a century ago, things would probably be very different.

How different? Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine...


What Should Have Happened

Let’s start where the butterfly first flapped its wings and rewrite that quote from former UCF A.D. Steve Sloan to the late Jerry Greene:

“We are definitely interested in joining a Division I-A conference, and the new merged league is an attractive proposition. While we understand that the established conferences carry a lot of prestige, we certainly believe that we can add tremendous value to any conference, and especially a new one with large, growing metropolitan campuses with high-profile athletic portfolios. That’s the kind of place where UCF can make its mark.”

Encouraged by the receptiveness and the program’s potential for growth, C-USA makes its move.

1995: UCF joins Conference USA

After brief negotiations, the new Conference USA invites UCF as a charter all-sports member for the 1995-96 season. UCF moves every sport from the TAAC to C-USA, with football moving up to Division I-A the year after to coincide with the league’s football launch.

C-USA starts with UCF, Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, St. Louis, USF, Charlotte, Southern Miss, UAB, Memphis and Tulane. UCF Football finishes 5-6 in its final year in I-AA.

1996: UCF Football Goes I-A

UCF is one of seven charter members of C-USA in football, along with Cincinnati, Louisville, Southern Miss, Memphis, Tulane, and newly added Houston, which joins from the defunct Southwest Conference. East Carolina is also extended an invitation for 1997-98 to bring the conference to eight teams for football and 14 for basketball.

Led by sophomore QB Daunte Culpepper, head coach Gene McDowell’s Golden Knights finish 6-5, narrowly missing out on the program’s first bowl bid.

The improvement continues in 1997 as UCF finishes 8-3, including a narrow loss at No. 6d Nebraska. But a heartbreaking 45-42 loss in the Superdome to Tulane ends up locking UCF out of its first-ever bowl game as the Humanitarian Bowl selects Shaun King and the Green Wave over Culpepper and the Knights.

1998: The Breakout Year

Duante Culpepper
Daunte Culpepper
Getty Images

Frustrated by the previous two seasons, Culpepper announces his return to UCF for his senior season and vows in the press conference to take UCF to its first bowl game in program history.

He makes good on his promise as UCF rolls through the regular season with only one loss, a 35-24 setback to Drew Brees and Purdue. It sets up a massive showdown in the Citrus Bowl with 11-0 Tulane on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Culpepper and King engage in a wild, back-and-forth shootout. The combatants combine for more than 1,100 yards of offense and 97 points, but in the end, a Paul Miranda interception ends the unblemished run for Tommy Bowden, King and the Wave, and the Golden Knights clinch their first-ever conference title, 51-46. UCF fans rush their home field, and Culpepper is carried off by the students after a career-defining performance: 457 yards passing, 87 yards rushing, six total touchdowns.

The celebration is tempered somewhat by the news that Gene McDowell would be retiring as head football coach, having seen UCF achieve the goals he set for the program. His offensive coordinator, Mike Kruczek, would take over after the Liberty Bowl, where UCF would hang on to knock off BYU, finish 11-1, and send McDowell and Culpepper off as winners.

Culpepper, who finished third in the Heisman balloting, is selected by the Miami Dolphins in the 1999 NFL Draft after Miami trades five picks, including first-rounders in 2001 and 2002, to Arizona in order to move up to No. 8 overall. He sits behind Dan Marino but starts five games as a rookie when Marino sits out with an injury. Culpepper wins four of them and gives Miami fans hope for continued success after Marino announces his retirement following the season.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Miami Dolphins Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Kruczek’s UCF tenure gets off to a rocky start with a 4-7 mark in 1999. But he finds his successor to Culpepper in Plantation QB Ryan Schneider. He takes over the following year as a freshman and leads UCF to a 7-4 record, including a 31-21 win in the opener at Georgia Tech and a victory over TCU in the Mobile Alabama Bowl.

Outside of football, UCF’s other teams gain traction as well. Men’s Basketball makes the NIT three straight years despite missing out on a conference title. Conference championships in Baseball (three in four seasons), Women’s and Men’s Soccer, and Volleyball highlight a renaissance in the Olympic sports. Donations and TV revenues grow at such a pace that A.D. Steve Sloan plans to add an indoor football practice facility, an on-campus baseball stadium, four new sports (Men’s Track & Field, Softball, Men’s and Women’s Swimming, and Diving).

Sloan also begins planning for what was once thought impossible: an on-campus football stadium. A 10-year, $10 million naming rights deal with Cingular Wireless paves the way for construction to begin by the end of 2000 with a planned open date of fall 2002. Time Warner also throws in $4.5 million over seven years for a new arena to be built right next to the old arena, set to open two years later.

2001: A New Rival

Sporting News Archive
Mike Kruczek
Photo by Bob Leverone/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Conference USA is expanding as well. South Florida, long a member of the conference in all sports but football, announces it is moving up to Division I-A for the 2001 season. Politics are put aside as UCF President John Hitt casts a symbolic clinching vote for the Bulls’ admission to C-USA as its 11th football program, with TCU also joining as the 12th. The two schools agree to play on rivalry weekend starting with a game at the Citrus Bowl on the day after Thanksgiving.

It does not go well for UCF, which comes in favored but is not prepared for a Bulls team that caught UCF asleep at the switch. Behind career days from QB Marquel Blackwell and Kawika Mitchell, USF shocks UCF in their first-ever meeting, 31-21, and the 6-5 Knights are passed over for the Gallery Furniture Bowl by TCU.

2002: Finally Home

After some construction delays that resulted in the Golden Knights playing their first three home games in the Citrus Bowl, Cingular Wireless Stadium opens to great fanfare for the Knights’ November 2, 2002 contest against Syracuse. What ensues is a thrilling 45-35 triumph that sees Schneider throw five TDs — three to Doug Gabriel and two to Jimmy Fryzel.

Two early road wins at Penn State and Arizona State vault UCF into the polls and the national conversation, but a crushing loss at TCU ends the Knights’ hopes of a conference title. UCF finishes 10-2 with a win over Oklahoma State in the Houston Bowl.

Sloan announces his retirement as UCF’s A.D., and is replaced by Steve Orsini, who came over from Georgia Tech.

2003: Reaching the Top

Comfortably ensconced in their new on-campus home, the 2003 Knights break out onto the national scene. After a close opening loss at Virginia Tech, UCF recovers to beat Syracuse again the following week. When the Knights go to Tuscaloosa and throttle a decrepit Alabama team, 45-13, in a game that was pushed back from 2000, the Knights climb into the top 25.

Before sellout home crowds of 45,000+, UCF dispatches every opponent they face by 21 points or more, including a 56-16 wipeout of USF on Black Friday. The Knights clinch their second C-USA title and then beat Urban Meyer, Alex Smith and No. 25 Utah in the Liberty Bowl, 24-22, on a last-second 48-yard field goal by Matt Prater. The Knights finish 11-1, and Schneider is selected by the Buffalo Bills in the second round of the draft.

The Great Move

Meanwhile, with college sports undergoing a conference alignment upheaval, the Big East loses Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC, who are looking to expand to 12 schools and stage a football championship game.

Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese strikes quickly by raiding four schools from Conference USA as all-sports members for the 2005 season: Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida and UCF. After adding UConn as a football member and convincing Temple to move all sports from the Atlantic 10, the Big East announces its new additions on November 4, 2003, along with a massive new TV contract with ESPN.

It’s a bold gamble, but it keeps the basketball schools (Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova, plus Notre Dame) happy — for the time being. The Big East also retains a football foothold in the state of Florida, but this time with two large public schools in place of one private institution.

2004: Big Changes

The new 10,000-seat Bright House Networks Arena opens on campus with the defending C-USA champions, UCF Volleyball, facing national contenders Florida in August. Anticipation is high for the men’s basketball season as the Golden Knights’ backcourt duo of local products PG Darius Washington (Edgewater HS) and SG Jason Rich (Dr. Phillips) are hands-down the best in C-USA. The Knights open the arena with a tight loss to Speraw’s mentor, Lute Olson, and No. 10 Arizona. It would be one of only seven losses on the season.

UCF finishes 25-7, second in C-USA behind Louisville, and after years of near-misses, makes the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994. The Golden Knights secure a No. 7 seed before losing in heartbreaking fashion to North Carolina State in the first round when Washington misses two of three free throws with no time remaining in a one-point game.

Meanwhile, back at home, the old UCF Arena is being converted into a 1,500-seat natatorium to house Swimming and Diving, which had been practicing at the Recreation & Wellness Center and attending only road meets since 2001. Construction is also finished on a new Tennis Center located next to the Baseball and Softball stadiums.

Football comes back to earth slightly in 2004. QB Brandon Sumner, a 6-foot-3 Mainland High School product who transferred from Georgia Tech, performs admirably in Mike Kruczek’s offense and develops a great rapport with his two young receivers in Brandon Marshall and Mike Walker. Senior Alex Haynes helps UCF lead C-USA in rushing. But the defense fails to hold fourth-quarter leads in key games against Penn State, West Virginia and Louisville. The Knights close out their Conference USA era with a respectable 8-4 mark and a wild loss to Hawai’i in the Hawai’i Bowl on Christmas Eve.

Two days after UCF’s bowl loss, Kruczek announces he’s taking the open head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh, in the city where he played in the NFL. Orsini, eager to make a splash with his first head coaching hire, finds the right guy to push UCF into a permanent national spotlight: Steve Spurrier.

2005: The Sun ‘n’ Gun comes to Orlando

Steve Spurrier UCF

Spurrier parted ways with the Washington Redskins after two miserable seasons and wanted to be back in the south, “where the golf was actually good.” South Carolina offered him $1.25 million per year, but he signed with UCF for the same amount of money to return to the Sunshine State.

It’s a massive windfall for UCF. Spurrier’s arrival combined with the move to the Big East create a skyrocketing demand for tickets. UCF’s marketing campaign includes sending cardboard cut-outs of Spurrier to businesses all over Orlando. Season passes for 2005 sell out in less than an hour. Stadium expansion plans are already underway.

The Head Ball Coach’s debut in Black & Gold is a massive success: A 36-28 Thursday night win at South Carolina, the school he spurned eight months earlier. He built upon Kruczek’s innovative infrastructure to develop a multiple-look spread that was as effective on the ground as it was through the air, similar to his latter days at Florida. He dubs it the “Sun ’n’ Gun” to distinguish it from his offense at UF. Freshman RB Kevin Smith runs for 1,000 yards, and Walker and Marshall both eclipse 1,000 yards receiving, with Marshall leading the nation with 1,632 yards on 94 catches. Sumner throws for more than 4,000 yards to lead the league.

Some growing pains lead UCF to a 9-3 finish, second in the Big East. Despite losing the Gator Bowl to Virginia Tech, UCF finishes the season ranked among the top 20. Marshall is drafted by the Packers in the second round, and Sumner goes to the Steelers in the seventh.

2007: UCFiesta

The athletics logo is updated, but the Golden Knights moniker is retained after some consideration was given to dropping the adjective. Spurrier hands the reins of his offense to redshirt freshman and Winter Springs product Brett Hodges in 2006. After an uneven first year as the starter (8-5, winning the International Bowl in Toronto), he settles in nicely as a sophomore. The biggest reason for that is junior RB Kevin Smith, who runs for his third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign and develops into the perfect spread-formation back.

Tulsa v University of Central Florida
Kevin Smith
Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

A road win over Tennessee (much to Spurrier’s postgame delight) and a Thursday night home victory over West Virginia set UCF up for another big year as it climbs all the way up to No. 4 in the first BCS poll. But a stunning loss at Rutgers drops the Knights back out of the top 10. Still, they recover to finish the rest of the year undefeated, on top of the Big East, and face Spurrier’s old defensive coordinator Bob Stoops and Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. UCF’s defense frustrates OU’s freshman QB, Sam Bradford, and the Golden Knights win their first BCS bowl game, 41-23, finishing 12-1 and sixth in the final AP poll.

On the basketball side, there is upheaval. After three straight at-large NCAA appearances, Speraw announces he is leaving in 2007 to take the head coaching job at his alma mater, Iowa. Beloved by the fans, his departure is met with heartbreak. But that subsides as Steve Orsini announces Speraw’s replacement would be Duke assistant Chris Collins.

Duke Blue Devils v Maryland Terrapins
Chris Collins
Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Collins brings the Coach K/Duke system to UCF. This allows Washington and Rich to up the tempo on offense, and the Knights see immediate results. UCF goes 21-14 overall and 10-8 in the Big East but shocks regular-season champion Georgetown in the Championship Game at Madison Square Garden, the first conference title for the Knights since the TAAC days.

The Knights stage a dramatic run, beating Oral Roberts and then stunning Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans to reach their first Sweet Sixteen in school history. Their luck would run out against Derrick Rose and Memphis, but UCF has served notice to the nation that it’s not just a football school.

That summer, Washington is drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Suns while Rich lands a lucrative contract in Europe.

2008-2012: Continued Success

For the next four years, not much of note happens aside from boring, consistent success. Despite a few rare setbacks (South Florida wins two straight War on I-4 matchups in 2010 and 2011), UCF Football posts at least nine wins, is ranked every year under Spurrier and reaches another BCS bowl in 2010 after an 11-2 season, falling to Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

Men’s basketball also continues to flourish under Collins, led by two-time Big East Player of the Year and scoring champ Jermaine Taylor. Collins is also instrumental in recruiting Michael Jordan’s son Marcus to UCF, and along with his older brother, Jeff, the Knights have another dynamic duo in the backcourt. Three appearances in the Big East semifinals at the Garden put the Knights on TV a lot, but the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament becomes their bugaboo.

Baseball wins three straight Big East titles from 2009-2011 and makes the Super Regionals each year, but Omaha eludes them. The Knights dominate the Big East in Softball, Tennis, Golf, and Track and Field (thanks in large part to home advantage in tournaments), and the Swimming and Diving teams see remarkably quick success. Volleyball and Women’s Soccer also hang two Big East banners each in this time period.

Women’s Basketball has a tough road, with Geno Auriemma and UConn dominating the nation. But in 2011, after a few fits and starts with three different coaches since 1999, the Knights land a transformative leader in Carolyn Peck.

Carolyn Peck
Carolyn Peck with the Orlando Miracle
Getty Images

Peck, who coached the WNBA’s Orlando Miracle and then the Florida Gators, comes back to Orlando in 2011 and elevates the program to within shouting distance of UConn and Notre Dame. The Knights are feared on their home floor and actually knock off UConn in Orlando in 2012, but never reach the conference championship.

2013: The Move That Wasn’t

Meanwhile, the gears of conference upheaval are cranking again. After the Pac-12 invites Utah and Colorado with an eye on developing its own TV network, the Big Ten, ACC and SEC start casting about for new members. Calls go out to Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia to gauge their interest in jumping ship. Surprisingly, none of those schools bite.

Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese’s bet on UCF, USF, Louisville and Cincinnati has paid off. TV numbers are solid, and the next TV deal is expected to rival the ACC’s, though still not in the same league as the SEC’s or the Big Ten’s.

Despite this, the basketball schools propose a Velvet Revolution — asking to be let out of their membership to form their own conference. The football schools amicably agree, and Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova form the America 8 with DePaul, Marquette and Butler.

Tranghese, his retirement pending, announces Memphis and Houston have agreed to join the Big East. Again, it’s a risky move, but both schools’ metropolitan locations, basketball history and growth potential on the gridiron are too good to pass up.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten, wanting to move to 14 teams, invite the Big 12’s Kansas and Missouri as full members and add Notre Dame as a non-football member. The Irish agree to play rotating games against six Big Ten opponents in football every season, thus maintaining their independent status and lucrative NBC TV contract. In turn, NBC buys out Fox’s 49% stake in the Big Ten Network, take over its operations and give the conference a national Game of the Week every Saturday. The deal solves the Big Ten Network’s carriage issues with Dish Network, and to make Notre Dame whole, it is promised every one of its games will be on the national NBC network as part of that window, creating a weekly doubleheader of Big Ten and Notre Dame football every Saturday.

Texas and Oklahoma then begin flirting with the SEC in a package deal that would also bring Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. But when ESPN threatens UT with a lawsuit over the Longhorn Network, the schools back down. With egg on their face and the three other largest brands in the conference furious with them, Texas tries to make nice, and offers to convert the Longhorn Network into a Big 12 Network. UT would still get priority placement for national TV games, but the other schools are compensated handsomely. The league then invites TCU, SMU and Boise State after Houston (whose alumni are still fuming from when former Texas Governor Ann Richards pulled strings for her alma mater Baylor that left the Cougars out of the Big 12 in 1994) joins the Big East.

Chastened after their humiliation by ESPN executives, and after internal discussions to invite Florida State and Clemson are scuttled by Florida and South Carolina, the SEC stands pat. Your new college football landscape looks like this:

The #P6 Conferences in 2014

Big East Big Ten ACC Pac-12 Big 12 SEC
Big East Big Ten ACC Pac-12 Big 12 SEC
Cincinnati Illinois Boston College Arizona Baylor Alabama
UConn Indiana Duke Arizona State Boise State Arkansas
Houston Iowa Georgia Tech California Iowa State Auburn
Louisville Kansas Maryland Colorado Kansas State Florida
Memphis Michigan Miami Oregon Nebraska Georgia
Pittsburgh Michigan State NC State Oregon State Oklahoma Kentucky
Rutgers Minnesota North Carolina Stanford Oklahoma State LSU
Syracuse Missouri Virginia UCLA SMU Mississippi State
Temple Northwestern Virginia Tech USC TCU Ole Miss
UCF Ohio State Wake Forest Utah Texas South Carolina
USF Penn State Florida State Washington Texas A&M Tennessee
West Virginia Purdue Clemson Washington State Texas Tech Vanderbilt
Wisconsin
Notre Dame*

The Playoff Gambit

Everyone now aims for the golden goose: A college football playoff. Momentum has been building for years toward this goal, and with ESPN in total or partial control of TV rights for five of the six power conferences, its time has come.

But when the SEC pitches a four-team tournament, the Big 12, Big East and ACC all balk. Coming off an LSU-Alabama BCS Championship, those conferences all agree that a four-team tournament that could leave out as many as half of the power conferences is unacceptable. With the SEC on its heels after the failed Texas/Oklahoma gambit, the deal is made: An eight-team playoff with all six power-conference champions getting automatic bids plus two at-large bids going to the highest-ranked non-conference champions according to a new ranking system. The quarterfinals would be held at campus sites on the Saturday before Christmas, with the semifinals on New Year’s Day and the Championship on a Saturday night no fewer than seven days later. The new College Football Playoff system begins in the 2014 season.

The Big East is now ahead of the ACC in the perceived conference prestige standings and is ready to stage a conference title game in prime time on ESPN. The league splits into two divisions for 2014: Syracuse, UConn, Rutgers, Pitt, West Virginia and Temple in the North. UCF, USF, Houston, Memphis, Cincinnati and Louisville in the South.

2014: Playoff Bound

Back in Orlando, Spurrier’s Golden Knights find another successor to their run of great QBs less than a mile from campus in Gatorade National Player of the Year Jeff Driskel of Hagerty High. He chooses UCF over Florida and starts as a redshirt freshman in 2012.

Following a lackluster 7-6 campaign in 2011, The Knights go 10-3 in 2012 and 11-3 in 2013, losing the Big East Championship Game to Cincinnati in shocking fashion. But in 2014, the gloves come off.

UCF rolls through its schedule, knocking off Penn State, Missouri and BYU in non-conference play, and averaging 46.2 points per game versus conference foes. Driskel throws for more than 4,800 yards — a Big East record — to a group of receivers Spurrier says is “the best I’ve ever had, even better than ‘96”: Breshad Perriman, Rannell Hall, Josh Reese, J.J. Worton and senior TE Blake Bortles, who hails from Oviedo.

The backfield combo of senior Storm Johnson and sophomore Will Stanback combine for more 1,600 yards on the ground, and the Knights’ defense, orchestrated by defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, is the best in the Big East.

The Knights finish the regular season 12-0, bomb Cincinnati, 58-17, in the Big East Championship and clinch their first playoff bid as the No. 4 seed, hosting No. 5 TCU. 341 passing yards from Driskel push UCF into the semis with a 43-31 win.

In the semis at the Sugar Bowl, the Golden Knights face Spurrier’s old nemesis, No. 1 Florida State, led by Jameis Winston. In an unexpected turn, UCF harasses Winston all night, forcing him into five interceptions and two fumbles, and UCF drops the hammer on the ‘Noles, 54-21.

In the Championship, UCF faces Nick Saban’s juggernaut Alabama squad. After a wild first quarter that includes four turnovers, Alabama settles on Derrick Henry attacking between the tackles. Henry and the ‘Bama offensive line take over the game as he rushes for 241 yards and three scores, and Driskel is frustrated all night. Final: 29-14, Alabama.

The following offseason, RB Sony Michel, out of Plantation, replaces Johnson in the backfield. An up-and-coming WR duo of Tre’Quan Smith and Tristan Payton complement senior Breshad Perriman. A young defense, led by twin brothers Shaquill and Shaquem Griffin, has some growing pains initially but proves its mettle as the season progresses.

Again, UCF rolls over everything in sight, though with a more pronounced running game than in 2014. After beating Florida in the Camping World Kickoff at the Citrus Bowl, UCF knocks off Stanford and South Carolina before blasting through a strong Big East Conference, dispatching 10-win Temple, Louisville and Houston. The Golden Knights survive against the Cougars in a wild shootout in H-town on a Friday night. Their reward is a rematch, this time in Orlando. Before a sellout crowd, Houston strikes early, but a career night from Driskel and two TD runs by Stanback push UCF back into the playoffs, 38-13.

Hosting the quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed, the Knights host No. 6 Baylor, and in another patented shootout, UCF outlasts the Bears, 52-37. It’s off to the Rose Bowl.

The cross-country trip and hostile crowd don’t faze the Knights as they pull away late from Pac-12 champ Oregon, 37-20, and head to Arlington to face Ohio State, which eked past Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl.

In a bruising game, the Knights and Buckeyes go back and forth all night. When Ohio State misses a late field goal, the game goes to overtime tied at 23. The Buckeyes open the period with a field goal. But then, on third and 12 from the 27, Driskel throws deep down the seam to Bortles, who stretches over the goal line for the winning touchdown. The UCF Golden Knights are National Champions.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - UCF v Auburn Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Aftermath

Following the pandemonium of the Knights’ national title, Steve Spurrier shocks everyone but apparently himself and announces his retirement from coaching.

It’s not the only major change in the athletic department as A.D. Steve Orsini had also announced his retirement the previous summer. President John Hitt, looking to keep the momentum rolling, surprises everyone by turning to a young, ambitious face from Buffalo to run his athletic program: Danny White.

College send scholarship checks, limited equipment to athletes
Danny White
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Spurrier had told White before the season that it would be his last, but word never got out. With D.J. Durkin leaving to take a different head coaching job, White taps Oregon’s offensive coordinator, Scott Frost, as Spurrier’s successor. The Knights, he promises in his press conference, would continue to be among the top offenses in the nation, but how they’d do it would be much different from the Sun ‘n’ Gun.

Driskel is drafted in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals. Meanwhile, Frost recruits a largely overlooked Hawaiian quarterback named McKenzie Milton to run his new offense for 2016.

White has more shoes to fill elsewhere. After another near miss in the Big East Tournament and another NCAA appearance — this time getting beat at the buzzer in the Sweet 16 — Chris Collins departs UCF Men’s Basketball to take the head coaching gig at Texas. But White doesn’t stray far from the Duke family, hiring ex-Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins. With his son Aubrey transferring in, the Knights are set up to keep the train moving after the early exits of Montverde Academy products Dakari Johnson and Kasey Hill. Their departures also clear the path for 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall and scrappy point guard B.J. Taylor to move into the starting lineup.

Carolyn Peck also moves on, deciding to go back to ESPN, where she spent three years as an analyst prior to getting the UCF job. White hires Katie Abrahamson-Henderson of Albany to take over the women’s basketball program.

Finally, 77-year-old Jay Bergman, the dean of UCF head coaches, retires to great fanfare at the end of the 2016 baseball season. In his final campaign, his Knights barely miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since joining the Big East. But he leaves with 14 conference titles and three Super Regional appearances. His replacement: Miami product and Wright State coach Greg Lovelady.

With all these moves in such a short time, question marks surround UCF’s entire athletic program heading into the fall of 2016. Will White’s youth movement in the coaching ranks pay off? Will UCF continue its success in the Big East? Has it surpassed UF, FSU and Miami as the premiere athletic program in the state of Florida?

All told, the Golden Knights’ two-decade transformation from a minor curiosity in a new conference to one of the nation’s powers is complete. The only real question heading into 2016 is whether or not they’d stay at the top of college athletics.

UCF Helmet Photo: Derek Warden
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