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Gene McDowell Deserves Forgiveness

The late father of UCF Football deserves to be inducted into the UCF Athletics Hall of Fame

Gene McDowell
Gene McDowell
Image Courtesy: UCF Athletics

On Sunday, April 11th at The Bounce House, friends and family will pay tribute at a memorial service to the Father of UCF Knights Football, Gene McDowell.

McDowell died on January 26th at the age of 80. Ever the competitor, he had been fighting leukemia for the better part of the last quarter of his life, until it finally caught up to him.

McDowell was as loyal as he was competitive, which ultimately led to his downfall. But the foundation he poured at UCF is what allowed his successors, from Mike Kruczek to Gus Malzahn, to build UCF into what it is now.

It’s high time we paid tribute to him here as well.

From The Ground Up

McDowell came to UCF after a decade as an assistant under Bobby Bowden at Florida State. But the UCF he arrived at was far from what we see now. Facilities were sparse and the program itself was on the brink of financial ruin. A disastrous tenure under former NFL coach and perennial job-hunter Lou Saban and horribly over-estimated revenues had left the program in a spectacular amount of debt ($1.2 million per year) — so much so that the university was pulling from funds reserved for student activities, and even broke state law by dipping into tuition. Boosters and administrators were prepared to end football at UCF altogether.

That’s when McDowell, who was hired as the Athletic Director as well as head football coach when his predecessor left that position, came in.

McDowell had been down this road before at Florida State, where he played from 1962-66. if the Seminoles’ program could go from where it was back then to where Bobby Bowden and he had it in the early 80s, then there was no reason to think it couldn’t be replicated.

Over the next four years, McDowell raised funds like crazy while coaching the football team to the Division II Playoffs. It was, as he termed it to the Miami New Times in 1999, the “survival period” for UCF Football, which administrators had told him would be cut if he didn’t right the ship. It was so bad, he took a salary of just $1 his first year. Through creative events and salesmanship, McDowell became the university’s greatest ambassador off the field.

“We had to beat the bush...We begged. We went out and tried to talk people into giving to the football program.”

He evangelized UCF on local TV as well. The weekly coaches’ show with Pat Clarke was called “UCF: Our Home Team,” and given that he was athletic director, McDowell frequently had coaches and athletes from sports other than football on as guests to tout their programs.

It’s difficult to imagine these days, but the budget UCF was working with, even with all of McDowell’s hard work, was a fraction of what UCF has now, and even that description is generous. The old Wayne Densch buildings, where the program was headquartered, were sparse. Weights were second-hand. Practice was held in the mud of the intramural fields. Video was a pipe dream. The Gatorade was probably expired. Sometimes running water was a luxury.

But McDowell and his staff and players made the best of it they could, to the tune of 86 wins over his tenure:

UCF Football Under Gene McDowell

Season Record Status Postseason Results
Season Record Status Postseason Results
1985 4-7 Division II Ind. - -
1986 6-5 Division II Ind. - -
1987 9-4 Division II Ind. Playoff Semifinals W @ Indiana (PA), L vs. Troy
1988 6-5 Division II Ind. - -
1989 7-3 Division II Ind. - -
1990 10-4 Division I-AA Ind. Playoff Semifinals W @ Youngstown St., W @ William & Mary, L @ GA Southern
1991 6-5 Division I-AA Ind. - -
1992 6-4 Division I-AA Ind. - -
1993 9-3 Division I-AA Ind. Playoff First Round L @ Youngstown St.
1994 7-4 Division I-AA Ind. - -
1995 6-5 Division I-AA Ind. - -
1996 5-6 Division I-A Ind. - -
1997 5-6 Division I-A Ind. - -
13 Years 86-61 3 appearances 3-3

This is not to say today’s players are any less tough than those of yesteryear, but there is a certain bond that comes with being on a team whose resources were so limited. As is often said about old stadiums, yeah, it was a dump, but it was their dump.

Mark Giacone, the legendary running back who played for McDowell, described those conditions in detail when we spoke to him a few years ago on our podcast (10:28 mark):

Giacone told us in the show that after he blew out his knee heading into the 1988 season, his rehab for 1989 was grueling. To motivate him back into playing form, McDowell didn’t promise to renew his scholarship prior to the fall, telling him, “Let’s see how you do in three-a-days.”

Giacone earned his scholarship.

“He made me work beyond what I would have ever done. Giacone said. “He gave me obstacles, and he rewarded me for it. And I loved him for it.”

That kind of loyalty is forged only under those conditions. It’s why his players were fiercely loyal to him, and why he was fiercely loyal to his players throughout the years.

That loyalty is ultimately what led to his downfall.

The Fall

Through 13 seasons, McDowell had overseen his program from a Division II also-ran, through playoff runs in Division I-AA, to Division I-A in 1996 - an unthinkable climb given today’s environment. With Daunte Culpepper running the offense from 1995, UCF was finally poised to make a splash under their longtime leader in 1998.

Then it all came crashing down.

A former player who had been working at AT&T Wireless, sold cell phones to players with numbers removed from AT&T’s systems. The FBI and U.S. Secret Service investigated and then raided UCF’s locker room on October 28th, 1997 to find the phones, which had been transported across state lines in violation of federal law.

McDowell inexplicably told reporters that he had been tipped off that the raid was coming two days before it happened, and then informed the players, who then tried to get rid the phones. The agents found four of the suspected 17 phones. So the investigation then turned to who leaked it to McDowell. A grand jury was impaneled.

McDowell resigned from UCF on January 20th, 1998. One month later, he pleaded guilty in federal court to lying to investigators. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, a $2,000 fine, 100 hours of community service and 180 hours of home confinement (the maximum possible sentence was five years in federal prison). But his previously sparkling reputation was forever tarnished.

After the trial, UCF shunned McDowell. He was not seen anywhere near the program he helped build for almost two decades, even after he had handed the head coaching job to his offensive coordinator, Mike Kruczek.

The Return(?)

It wasn’t until 2015 when George O’Leary, who was the interim athletic director at the time, honored McDowell with a scholarship endowment that was funded by his friends and former players.

McDowell was honored on the field during the Knights’ game with Furman. Here’s the video that was played:

Even with the passage of time, the way his career ended left UCF Athletics in the uncomfortable position of not being able to fully honor the man who saved the program. The UCF Athletics Hall of Fame has a Good Citizenship rule that has prevented his induction:

The individual is not eligible if they have previously been convicted of or plead guilty to any felony criminal activity.

As a result, McDowell saw numerous players and compatriots inducted, but never received that honor himself.

I think we should correct that.

An Honor Long Deserved

If anyone deserves to be in the UCF Athletics Hall of Fame based on the merits alone, it’s obviously Gene McDowell. Without him, UCF Football no longer exists, plain and simple.

If there’s something that those of us in both the new school and the old school know, it’s this: Nobody’s perfect. Leaders are flawed. Humans make mistakes. And sometimes they’re made out of loyalty rather than nefariousness.

“Greatness,” Jeff Bridges said in the movie ‘The Contender,’ “comes in many forms. Sometimes it comes in the form of sacrifice — that’s the loneliest form.” Yes, McDowell confessed to breaking federal law. It was also a victimless crime that cost him far more than was merited at the time. He sacrificed his career to protect his players — something he did many times, but not in the face of the law.

Don’t get me wrong here: I completely acknowledge that what McDowell did was wrong. It’s easy to say I’m advocating for giving him a pass, but I’m not. My point is that he has paid the price for what he did, and he shouldn’t continue to pay that price in death.

So if there was ever one person who deserves to have that rule waived or eliminated, it’s Ephriam Eugene McDowell. It’s too late for him to realize that in the flesh, but life is cruel sometimes. That also should not stop UCF’s Hall of Fame Committee from doing the right thing and posthumously inducting him.

Were he still here, I don’t know if Coach McDowell would approve of changing the rules just to suit him. But perhaps making such an exception is just the fitting tribute for an exceptional coach.